The Security & Defence Agenda (SDA) is Brussels' only dedicated security and defence think-tank. The SDA raises awareness by anticipating the political agenda and focusing attention on European and transatlantic policy challenges related to security and defence. Its activities include roundtables, lunch and evening debates, policymakers’ dinners, international conferences and a range of publications. The SDA brings together experts and policymakers from the EU institutions, NATO, national governments, industry, the media, think-tanks, academia and NGOs. This diversity, and a reputation for thought-provoking debate, has kept the SDA at the heart of the defence and security community.
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24 September 2013
Reply to David Cronin's article on EUobserver by Giles Merritt, Director of the Security & Defence Agenda.
An old saying among journalists when Fleet Street in London was the centre of the UK’s fairly tight-knit community of national newspapers, was that dog doesn’t eat dog. As a former Financial Times journalist, it sprang to mind when I read the article by your correspondent David Cronin. His piece sparked some thoughts about the nature of think tanks in Brussels and elsewhere, their roles and their vulnerability to criticism.
Think tanks here in Brussels aren’t as aggressive and partisan as in, say, Washington DC. That’s in large part because most have no political affiliation. It’s also because many of them are broadly supportive of European integration, even if they can be sceptical about some of the policies pursued by the EU. In general, we think tankers try to be even-handed in our efforts to stimulate debate amongst the policymakers and to attract the interest of public opinion.
Every now and again, there’s a hue and cry over whether the Brussels think tanks are lobbyists. The latest was a couple of years ago when the European Commission introduced a well-intentioned but clumsy initiative to get the think tanks to sign-up to the new lobbyists’ register. The blunder stemmed from the fact that the European Parliament’s passes for regular visitors fail to distinguish between the two. Most think tanks refused to sign, and the commissioner responsible, Siim Kallas, wisely changed tack and created a special category for them with a renamed “Transparency Register”.
But the damage was done. Although most think tanks have long been scrupulously transparent about where their funding comes from, the mud stuck that they are so corrupted by capitalist gold that they urge their paymasters’ preferred policies on EU decision-makers.
All this came to mind when I read David Cronin’s article asserting that my colleague Shada Islam “is, to all intents and purposes, a lobbyist for the arms industry”. Shada is, like me, a former journalist who now is arguably Brussels’ most respected expert and commentator on Asian affairs. She launched the highly successful Asia programme that is an important part of the activities of Friends of Europe, the think tank I head, and is also an adviser to the Security and Defence Agenda, its sister think tank known widely as the SDA.
Labelling a fellow journalist as a lobbyist is tantamount to libel, because one’s reputation for independence and honesty is precious. Mr Cronin’s article, with its headline “Serving America’s war machine”, made the serious allegation that in a TV interview on EuroNews, Shada Islam had advocated an attack against the Assad forces in Syria because that would benefit one of the SDA’s funders, Lockheed Martin.
It wasn’t so much the libel that set me thinking – Lockheed Martin has taken no part in the SDA’s activities nor funding since the middle of 2012 – but the realisation that in a small community like Brussels there is a special credibility that attaches to one journalist’s attack on another. Readers are likely to think that there can be few secrets in the intimate world of EU specialists.
It’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the SDA. I set it up in 2002 to ensure that the growing focus in Europe on defence and security should not be obscured by the many other topics discussed in Brussels. The aim was to provide NATO and the EU with a No Man’s Land where they could meet, and also to help move defence up the European agenda. Mr Cronin writes about the ‘merchants of death’, but I think many people believe that Europe’s enfeebled military outreach is a drawback.
Funding the SDA isn’t easy, and the sensitivities over its financial support are such that complete openness has always been the only answer. The SDA lists all the companies it receives money from, as well as national governments and organisations like NATO or the EU. Our independence is fiercely guarded.
The contribution of the SDA and other think tanks in Brussels has, I hope, been very positive. In an environment where the EU institutions inevitably dominate discussion, the questioning voices of the think tanks should be welcome. So too should be the platforms they offer to people with different, and often opposing, views. It’s the latter point that makes me wince if I hear the lobbyist charge, because we all go out of our way to create interesting debates in which people with expert knowledge feel free to disagree. If that’s lobbying, it must be very confusing for anyone who’s being lobbied.
I wouldn’t want to join the dog-eating fraternity myself, but a couple of points for David Cronin to think about, and perhaps reconsider the personal fatwah he issued against the SDA several years ago and refuses to recant despite the hard facts he’s been supplied with. Security policy isn’t about war, it’s about peace. We also work with organisations like the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Transparency International, the UN and the British Council, and we welcome speakers like Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist and Nobel peace prize laureate.
The SDA itself doesn’t take a position on the issues it highlights; it offers itself as a platform for all opinions. Interestingly enough, though, the issue of intervention in Syria that prompted Cronin’s outburst was addressed earlier this summer by the SDA’s two co-presidents, former EU High Representative Javier Solana, and former NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer. Far from urging on the merchants of death, they wrote an article in The New York Times condemning the idea of military involvement. It’s promoting a whole range of ideas that we think tanks are rightly proud of.