News 03rd Jul 2018

Inside Bilderberg 2018 with Charlie Skelton


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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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.

Last month, the influential and publicity-shy Bilderberg group held its annual conference in the Fiat headquarters in Turin. The group describes the conference as “an annual forum for informal discussions”, and says that it has “one main goal”, which is “to foster discussion and dialogue.”

A set of discussions designed to foster discussion. A virtuous circle of dialogue — sounds positively noble and uplifting. However, at the risk of being ever so slightly cynical about the aims of a group run by the vice chairman of Nestlé and funded by BP and Goldman Sachs, I’m going to suspend for a moment my belief in what the group says about itself, and apply the Duck Test to Bilderberg.

In short: if it walks, swims and quacks like a corporate lobbying group then maybe it’s a corporate lobbying group.

Take a closer look at the conference that just wrapped up in Turin. It was hosted by John Elkann, the Agnelli billionaire, who runs Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It was held at the Fiat HQ, and was staffed by Fiat public relations folk. Dinners were provided by Fiat in the closed-off Automobile Museum. The evening drinks party on Saturday was thrown by Fiat, on the roof of Fiat, surrounded by Fiats. You might almost describe the whole thing as a Fiat event.

Then look at who’s invited. The heavily guarded three-day conference was attended by a large number of senior politicians and public officials. Guests included four prime ministers, the German minister of defence, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Governor of Colorado and the Secretary General of Nato.

Sat amongst the ministers and central bankers were billionaire industrialists, the owners of vast media conglomerates, and the CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world. This year in Turin were the heads of (amongst many others) Shell,  Airbus, Total, Ryanair and Vodafone. And Fiat, of course.

This heady mix of the public and private sector spent three days discussing a broad range of topics including “Russia”, “the future of work” and “free trade”.

The group is keen to stress the informality of this these talks. The word “informal” is used multiple times on their website. Which is odd, because the one thing the discussions aren’t is informal. Carefully structured sessions with moderators, expert speakers and rapporteurs. Rows of desks and a rigid timetable. “Intense” is how a Norwegian delegate described it to us in 2014. “It’s meetings all the time.”

The one thing the website gets right about the conference is its “private nature”. Ever since it began, back in the mid-1950s, the group has shied away from press attention.  The meeting is “off limits” to journalists admits the current head of the group, Henri de Castries. The dapper French financier is chairman of the group’s steering committee, as well as being vice chairman of Nestlé and a director of banking giant HSBC.

HSBC was identified in a 2017 investigation by the Times as one of the ten biggest FTSE 100 spenders on governmental lobbying. Its combined total of spending on all party parliamentary groups and EU lobbying was beaten only by Shell and BP.

Shell were represented at Bilderberg 2018 by its CEO, Ben van Beurden. BP by its CFO, Brian Gilvary, and a member of its board of directors, Sir John Sawers.

There are other top ten lobbying spenders at Bilderberg: Barclays was represented in Turin by a director, Dambisa Moyo;  AstraZeneca by a director, the Swedish billionaire Marcus Wallenberg; and Vodafone by its CEO, Vittorio Colao.

Furthermore, many of the corporate leaders at Bilderberg are senior members of powerful lobbying groups. Vodafone boss Vittorio Colao is vice chairman of one of the most important big business lobby groups in the world: the European Round Table of Industrialists. There were no fewer than five other members of the ERTI at the Turin conference, including Ben van Beurden of Shell.

Another hugely powerful industry lobby group is the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. On its board of directors is the CEO of Fiat Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne, who arrived at this year’s Bilderberg by helicopter but didn’t get a mention on the official participant list.

A comprehensive list of corporate lobbyists at Bilderberg would be an investigation in itself. For now, one other delegate at this year’s conference stands out: Maria Rankka.

Rankka is CEO of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and a director of Business Sweden. She is purely a lobbyist, and very senior one. She has been on more than one official trip to Saudi Arabia to help sell Swedish business, in the company of Marcus Wallenberg and senior government dignitaries (the Swedish PM one time, the Foreign Minister another). It is literally her job to lobby on behalf of Swedish business.

Then you consider that at Bilderberg 2018 there were, in no particular order: Canada’s Minister of International Trade; the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation; Ireland’s Minister of Finance and Quebec’s Minister of Economy. Add to them all the other prime ministers and politicians (including Amber Rudd MP) and you’ve got an absolute car crash of lobbying.

For Rankka, as for the other lobbyists, Bilderberg is work. The four days it takes the CEOs and financiers of Bilderberg to attend the conference isn’t time off. They’re on the clock. It stretches credulity to snapping point to say that the “one main goal” of the assembled chairmen of Deutsche Bank, Lazard, Goldman Sachs International and Banco Santander, is some kind of disinterested and informal “discussion”. Yet Bilderberg sticks resolutely to this claim.

Ken Clarke, a Bilderberg veteran and former steering committee member, when called to Parliament to discuss the 2013 conference in Watford, described the talks as “completely informal”. He said: “we all attend extremely informally; we are not there in any capacity”. He stressed this last point: “Nobody attends representing any particular organisation to which they might belong.”

However, the Treasury had confirmed in 2012 that George Osborne was attending the St Moritz conference “in his official capacity as Chancellor of the Exchequer”. We know for certain that Ministers attend as ministers, often with staff and advisors in tow. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, attended the 2018 conference with an assistant. Because it’s work.

Recently, the Bilderberg group has wisely stopped making the claim that politicians attend as “private individuals”. What the group now says is that “participants are not bound by the conventions of their office”. But if that’s true it might actually be worse. Personally, I would prefer my politicians to be bound by the conventions of their office. Conventions like: trying to avoid engaging in long, off-the-record brainstorming sessions with billionaires and bank bosses and professional lobbyists when there’s no press or public oversight whatsoever.

In summary: the way the group styles itself and its aims on its website is deceptive at best. And yet, all too often, the mainstream news media simply parrots the PR blurb that Bilderberg puts out about itself. And the politicians and policymakers who attend simply ignore how compromising it all is. That said, what’s impressive, I have to admit, is the way they manage to sip so much free champagne with their lips so tightly shut and their heads buried so deep in the sand.

Main Photo: Networking at Bilderberg: Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone and Vice President of the European Round Table of Industrialists, chats to Mehmet Simsek, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey. Credit – Hannah Borno