What role for a European think tank in the age of populism?

The role of a think tank is to provide policymakers with analysis and expert opinion, based on facts, figures and rigorous research. But this makes little sense in a world in which even facts and figures are contested. As memorably remarked during the Brexit campaign by a leading advocate of leaving the EU, “the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best …”

A European think tank is even more affected than its national counterparts by the surge in populism that is accompanying the post-factual attitude. It has to face the charge that the leadership of the European Union in Brussels is not democratically elected. The European institutions, their rules and the think tanks that advise them, are thus all lumped together as part of the ‘elite’, which is seen to frustrate so often the will of the ordinary people. Europe, or rather the European Union, is thus an easy target for all populist movements. But national governments did not create the EU on a whim. Each step forward of the European construction has been deeply debated and often hotly contested – and ultimately became possible only after national governments were convinced that certain problems could be better solved at the European level.

This is also the reason why the European construction is much more resilient than both its populist detractors and its supporters realise. The practical problems of how to regulate trade, maintain financial stability and guarantee external and internal security in a tightly inter-woven continent would not go away even if the EU were to disappear tomorrow. And any solutions to these problems will necessarily be complex, often involving more than one layer of governance.This challenging reality has already dawned on EU and national decision-makers in the case of Brexit. “Take back control” seemed a simple slogan, but the government of Teresa May is discovering that simply leaving the EU does not give an answer to the concrete problems any European country must face every day. Brexit represents the visible part of a widespread undercurrent, namely the desire to have simple answers to today’s problems. Since Europe is necessarily complicated, the simple answer, by default, is to go ‘national’ again.

Expert analysis, facts and figures, might not grab the headlines in the age of populism. But they retain their value because, usually below the radar screen of the public debate, policymakers, of whatever colour, have to make concrete choices to address problems that cannot be solved by simple slogans. The multiple problems facing Europe today demand to be solved one way or another. If European think tanks are to retain their value, their role is not to be a cheerleader of European integration, but rather to provide facts, figures and an array of informed policy options to EU decision-makers. Above all, the degree of European integration and the policy choices available to the EU institutions must remain subject to open debate.