News 03rd Jun 2016

Bilderberg 2016: The Elephant in the Lobby


The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

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By Charlie Skelton

On Thursday of next week, at a luxury hotel in central Dresden, the doors of the annual Bilderberg policy conference will be flung open. Not to members of the press, mind. In fact, perhaps “flung” is overstating it. Gingerly, behind a battalion of armed police, private security and secret service bodyguards, the hotel door will be cracked ajar, and in will slide a handpicked few of the most senior corporate executives in the world: board members of transnational banks, chairmen of global energy companies, and the owners of vast industrial and media conglomerates.

Scurrying in behind the bank bosses and hedge-fund billionaires will be a clutch of extremely senior politicians from around Europe: Chancellors, PMs, party leaders and finance ministers. Last year, the President of Austria and the Prime Ministers of Holland and Belgium took part in the discussions. Our own esteemed Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is a regular attendee, David Cameron himself was ushered inside in 2013, and Lord Mandelson is often to be found popping on a coveted white lanyard. This year, most notably, a hefty contigent from the German cabinet is due to attend.

Inquiries made by the left-wing Die Linke party prompted the German government to confirm that Chancellor Angel Merkel has been invited to the Dresden conference, along with five senior federal ministers: Wolfgang Schäuble (Finance); Ursula von der Leyen (Defence); Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Foreign Affairs), Sigmar Gabriel (Economic Affairs and Energy); and Peter Altmaier (Special Affairs, and in charge of German's intelligence services).

On the table: the most pressing economic, military and strategic issues of the day. Around the table: the assembled heads of NATO, Deutsche Bank, Airbus, the IMF and Google. Stretching out before them: three days of intense, meticulously structured talks, with nothing but a laughably skeletal agenda released to the press. What the organisers deign to provide is scarcely better than nothing – a weedy list of brilliantly vague bullet points, like “current events” and “Africa”, as if that's any sort of information at all. I'd be genuinely more impressed if their entire press release was a grainy photograph of the Clacton seafront. It would be intellectually more honest, and a great deal less irritating.

As for the politicians who attend: all those solemn trumpetings about a new age of transparency – quietly forgotten on the flight home. Just one example: George Osborne's risible post-Bilderberg report to the public, in his quarterly transparency data, is the same two words each year: “general discussion”. That's his summary of 3 days of meetings. Yeah, thanks for keeping us in the loop, George. That's great. I almost feel like I was there in the room. You should write a novel.

I should say, not all the politicians in Germany are delighted by the prospect of the Dresden summit. The chairman of Die Linke in the Saxony parliament, Rico Gebhardt, has spoken out against the coming conference, stressing the fundamental incompatibility of “the democratic process” and this chronic level of “untransparency”. According to Gebhardt, “politics thrives on transparency and legitimacy” – but then you have to remember, even with so many politicians attending, and so many policies being thrashed out, Bilderberg isn't really politics.

As Hannibal Lecter says, paraphrasing Marcus Aurelius: “of each thing, ask: what is it – in and of itself?" And Bilderberg I would have to say – in its very essence – is lobbying.

A three-day corporate-funded lock-in with a bunch of cherrypicked ministers and European Commissioners: no wonder the oil company CEOs and hedge-fund billionaires take time out of their boardrooms for Bilderberg. Technology, war, diplomacy, globalisation – these people don't have a dry, academic interest in these subjects, like a professor of entemology is fascinated by the knee-joints of the centipede. They're focused on these policy areas like a vampire on a neck-pulse. Whether it's austerity or sustainability, foreign affairs or cyberspace, it's all business. And business is everything.

Of course, some of the lobbying is ideological: there are people at Bilderberg for whom globalisation is nothing short of a religion and a European superstate is a tremendous, glittering utopia – a glorious stepping-stone towards a Pepsi future of globalised thought and consumption. But even for the old-school globalists like Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and Étienne Davignon, the grand vision of a globalised future is always underpinned by a kind of hawkish hunger for dollars. The twin goals of governance and greed are so entwined in a kind of Googlosophy of life that I couldn't begin to unpick them.

What I can say is that for industrialists and ideologues alike, the annual Bilderberg conference is the Wimbledon Championships of the lobbying calendar. Although unlike Wimbledon, the BBC doesn't send 300 journalists and cameramen to cover it. Or indeed, anyone at all.

Even after 60-odd years, the mainstream media still doesn't quite know how to talk about Bilderberg. It hasn't got the language. The problem, I suspect, is this: the lobbying at Bilderberg takes place at such a high level (Chairman to Chancellor, CEO to Prime Minister, bank boss to Nato Secretary-General) that the basic business going on behind closed doors is easily overlooked. It's all so lofty and prime-ministerial, that you're apt to forget what what the CEO of Titan Cement Co. is doing there in the first place.

Bilderberg has the pseudo-academic gloss of a conference, with policies passed off as “megatrends”, and a heady sprinkle of European royals for glitz, but at its root, it's nothing more than good, old-fashioned corporate lobbying. What you're seeing is the Anglo-American financial and industrial establishment doing business. It's three days' hard work. And you can be damned sure the Vice-Chairman of Blackrock and the CEO of JPMorgan Asset Management wouldn't be there unless it was three days that paid.

In this context, it's instructive to compare the Bilderberg summit with a similarly unpublic gathering: a little-known Brussels lobbying event called AMISA2, which was recently written about by the Corporate Europe Observatory research and campaign group.

AMISA2 takes the form of a monthly breakfast, attended by representatives from seventeen major corporations, and a special guest from the world of public policy (often, the European Commission).

There's quite a considerable crossover in the corporations present at the two events. Five of the seventeen companies at AMISA2 have a senior executive who is currently on the steering committee of Bilderberg: ABB, Airbus, Bayer, Norsk Hydro and Google. Another four corporations have a director or CEO who has attended at least one Bilderberg conference: Dow, ExxonMobil, Michelin and Roche.

But here's the difference: according to the Corporate Europe Observatory “only the head of a Brussels office can participate in AMISA2 breakfast meetings, so effectively that company’s top EU lobbyist.” At Bilderberg, it's not the head of the Brussels office wearing the white lanyard, it's the head of the company.

AMISA2 might attract the head of staff of a European Commissioner. At Bilderberg you're more likely to bump into the President of the EC itself. There's even an ex-EC President (Barroso) on the steering committee. And there's the sheer scale of the event: at Bilderberg, it's a three-day working conference with NSA snipers on the roof, not a plate of eggs with a hovering waitress.

And yet the AMISA2 breakfast is more obviously and understandably an example of “lobbying” in action. It's compact enough to fit inside the concepts we have of undue influence and unaccountable corporate access to policymakers. Bilderberg is so big and brazen, so bursting with ministers and billionaires, that it confounds our ability to talk about it in the mundane and grubby terms of corporate lobbying. It's the elephant in the lobby.

Wittgenstein said: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” And when it comes to Bilderberg, mainstream journalists really need to learn how to speak about it, sensibly and accurately, so they can start reporting on it for what it is, with all the quiet, unhysterical disdain that it so richly deserves.

This year's Bilderberg Conference is taking place in Dresden, June 9-12, at the Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski. Charlie Skelton will be reporting on it for the Guardian, and tweeting from Dresden on @deyook. Charlie Skelton is a writer for the Guardian. The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.