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Smoke Gets in your Eyes
How the European Commission was able to tell a think tank what not to think
Think tanks are meant to, well…, think. And the best way to think is to gather as much information as you can from as many sources and evaluate the ideas using sound reasoning and critical analysis.
But what if a think tank is told by a government that they are not allowed to think certain thoughts or listen to certain ideas? You would conclude that you would be living in some totalitarian or fascist state rather than a liberal democracy. You could not imagine that happening in a place like Brussels.
The European Policy Centre is one of the largest, Brussels-based think-tanks; one that prides itself on a wide membership of stakeholders from governments, industry, NGOs and academic institutions coming together with European officials to work on policy, governance and regulatory issues, trade and economic discussions and reactions to political events. A wide inclusion of all views and actors is essential for the EPC to provide legitimate policy positions and robust dialogue.
Earlier this year, the European Commission informed the European Policy Centre that they would be excluded from any EU involvement or funding opportunities so long as Tobacco Europe remained a member of the think tank. Faced with an existential threat, the EPC informed its “former member” that they would refund their outstanding membership dues. No one seemed to protest (except Tobacco Europe – see their response to the European Commission here).
Perhaps the European Commission thought they were acting as a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. But the WHO only requested parties to refrain from direct lobbying with representatives of tobacco companies on health issues. This does that imply that a trade association cannot benefit from membership in a private think tank.
Certainly, the tobacco industry is not widely loved by many stakeholder groups. But neither are NGOs like Greenpeace or Pesticide Action Network and I don’t see European Commission officials chasing them around town with a broom.
The last I checked, tobacco and nicotine products are still legal in all European countries. The last I checked, the European Policy Centre was an independent organization that should be allowed to work freely and free from intimidation. The European Commission, in denying a trade association representing a large part of the European population from having a voice in a private think tank’s activities, was acting far beyond its remit. To say the least, the European Commission officials were acting like zealots (no doubt under pressure from health activists who advise them) but, in reality, they were abusing their power by putting undue pressure on an independent research organization to fall in line with their non-legal health / virtue aspirations.
The European Policy Centre had little choice in the matter and was not going to kick up dust over a single member. But ExxonMobil and Chevron are also EPC members. What happens tomorrow if the European Commission climate zealots pony up to the trough again to threaten the EPC with exclusion unless they kick out all fossil fuel members. Chemical companies, plastics, pesticides … None of them should have a voice in policy debates if we follow the EU’s tobacco logic.
Am I the only one who finds this shocking?
Shock One was that the European Commission felt it had a right to intimidate a private think tank into denying participatory engagement with a major stakeholder group.
Shock Two was how timid and spineless all of the industry members in the EPC have been. As second slowest zebras, the corporate representatives posted in Brussels do not get that their industries are already being tobacconized and it is only a matter of time before they are likewise excluded (unless they stand up and speak out).
Shock Three was that the media did not speak up. I just learnt about this government intimidation four months after the fact. What if the European Commission did not like a news organization’s reporting and ordered that they be excluded not just from EU press conferences but from involvement in think tanks. Since the Brussels-based media is largely anti-industry and certainly anti-tobacco, they celebrated this affront to public dialogue and free thinking (unaware how they are the third slowest zebra, and that beast needs to be fed).
How could we arrive at a situation where the leading Brussels institution could so freely deny the democratic right of a large stakeholder representative body to participate in a private think tank’s internal research activities?
Is the European Commission Health DG beholden to radical activist health groups? It just recently awarded the anti-tobacco NGO, The European Network For Smoking And Tobacco Prevention, part of a three-million euro award (uncontested) for research and consulting services.
Is it because the European Commission is unelected that they do not have to worry about the consequences of their affronts to free speech and public participation?
Is this a sign of the present generation of professional policy graduates who have no practical experience outside of government and measure their governing success with idealism and virtue-driven achievements?
Or are we in a new, post-COVID governance climate where it is now just assumed the state’s objectives are more important than individual liberties?
Whatever the reason (probably a little of each), the deafening silence of objection from all actors is a worrying sign for the future of democratic institutions.
We haven’t had this spirit here since 1933.
Disclosure: In 2005, I had signed a six-month contract with the EPC to work on a Risk Forum document and event. But that was during the time of my mentor and EPC co-founder, Stanley Crossick, who was not afraid to stand up to European officials and to stand on principles.