Next week, at the Marriott Hotel in Copenhagen, the annual trade and policy summit held by the Bilderberg Group will throw open its doors for three days of top level talks, from May 29th to June 1st. I say “throw open its doors”… the doors will remain, as ever, firmly closed to the public and press. Unless you happen to own a newspaper, or run a publishing conglomerate, or be the Executive Chairman of Google, chances are you’re not going.
It’s remarkable how many bank bosses and corporate CEOs manage to clear their diary, every year, for a full three days of conferencing at Bilderberg. Last year, BP sent its Group Chief Executive, the Michelin Group sent its CEO, while HSBC was represented by both the Group Chairman and the Vice Chairman. From Goldman Sachs came two board members, including their Vice Chairman. And Royal Dutch Shell left a skeleton crew back at headquarters: the company sent its Chairman, CEO, and CFO – and in case that wasn’t enough, they also sent along a director, Josef Ackermann. Who’s also on the board of Investor AB, the £20 billion asset management company. Which also sent its CEO and Chairman. You get the picture.
All this corporate brass spending three days conferencing with media moguls and billionaire investors wouldn’t matter so much, but for the fact that quite a few of the participants who get locked away with them are politicians. And senior politicians at that.
In 2013, the Bilderberg conference was attended by seven Finance Ministers, three Foreign Ministers, two deputy Prime Ministers, and two serving Prime Ministers: Mark Rutte, the PM of Holland, and our very own David Cameron. With them: the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso; EU Commissioner, Viviane Reding; the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde; and various other politicians and policymakers.
Now, if you’re in charge of HSBC, or Telecom Italia – or if you’re Henry Kravis, running the famously aggressive $40 billion private equity firm KKR – then you might well regard such a luxurious length of private access to this many senior policymakers as something of a boon. Three days worth clearing your diary for.
People often wonder what Bilderberg “is”. And the simplest answer is: a gigantic lobbying opportunity. A fair few of the corporate commandants who attend the conference also hold, besides their various executive roles and directorships, senior positions in large and influential trade associations and lobby groups – groups with snappy names like the European Round Table of Industrialists, the Foreign Investment Advisory Council, and the European Financial Services Round Table.
One example: the current chairman of Bilderberg’s Steering Committee, which is the group’s governing body – Henri de Castries. Besides being the Chairman and CEO of the investment and insurance giant AXA, and the head of Bilderberg, he’s also a member of the aforementioned European Financial Services Round Table. And in his spare time he’s on the board of Nestlé. This is typical: pretty much everyone at Bilderberg wears a dozen different hats. The queue at the cloakroom after dinner is a nightmare.
One of the best represented lobbying organisations at Bilderberg is BritishAmerican Business (BAB), a transatlantic, big business advocacy group, which boasts of being able to exert “regulatory influence” through “high-level representation to Government on policy issues”.
At last year’s Bilderberg conference, there were six members of BAB’s International Advisory Board:
- Ian Davis, Chairman, Rolls-Royce
- Robert Dudley, CEO, BP (at time of meeting)
- Douglas J Flint, Group Chairman, HSBC
- John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief, the Economist
- Peter Sutherland KPMG, Chairman, Goldman Sachs International
- Peter Voser, CEO, Shell (at time of meeting)
No wonder BAB’s Chairman is able to say:
“Access – to the right connections, audiences, influence and intelligence – is key to business success. And high-quality access is at the heart of the business advantage we offer on both sides of the Atlantic.”
For lobby groups like BritishAmerican Business, Bilderberg is Wimbledon, the Champions League and Christmas rolled into one. It’s the Holy Grail of “access”. Never mind having to loiter around a lobby trying to flag down a passing politician, this is one lobby the politicians travel to themselves. Generally on a flight paid for by the taxpayer.
Of course, none of the lobby groups or trade associations whose members are at Bilderberg are officially “there”. But membership of a lobby group is not something you take off like a raincoat at the door of the hotel. Douglas Flint doesn’t magically stop being a member of BritishAmerican Business’s International Advisory Board when he sits down for breakfast opposite George Osborne, any more than he stops being the Group Chairman of HSBC when he’s playing late night billiards with Christine Lagarde.
To see how Bilderberg creates such a perfect storm of lobbying, it pays to look closer at how an individual policy might be promoted there. One of the key policies currently being pushed by BritishAmerican Business, for example, is the giant TTIP free trade deal between the EU and the US – a policy that chimes with Bilderberg’s peculiarly transatlantic vision. BAB has been playing:
“a leadership role, with government and the business community, in promoting the prospective EU-US Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP).”
Bilderberg grants these pro-TTIP advocates untrammelled access to the very people they’re advocating to: the politicians and trade negotiators. Present at the 2013 Bilderberg meeting was Kenneth Clarke, one of the government’s key TTIP negotiators. Not to mention the seven Finance Ministers, and other assorted economic policymakers (see Lord Mandelson to your right).
Alongside them was José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission – which is negotiating TTIP with the US on behalf of the EU and its Member States. And David Cameron, who turned up to take part in what Downing Street described as “a discussion around domestic and global economic issues.”
Cameron, of course, is the UK’s representative at the European Council, which will, when the time comes, examine the negotiated trade deal and either pass it or reject it.
So, you’ve got TTIP negotiators, TTIP lobbyists and TTIP arbiters, locked away together for three days, with no press oversight. It’s a heady mix. And considering that TTIP was top of the conference agenda (under the heading “Can the US and Europe grow faster and create jobs?”) it’s hard not to see the conference itself as just another phase of the notoriously untransparent TTIP negotiations.
In all of this, it’s pointless looking to the lobbyists for greater transparency: it’s entirely in their interests to keep the process out of the public eye. It would be like asking a fox to come up with ways to improve chicken shed security.
Likewise, there’s no particular reason why the various CEOs and investment fund billionaires at Bilderberg are going to want the press snooping around these discussions. They prefer to glad-hand EU Commissioners and schmooze Prime Ministers behind closed doors.
As for the Bilderberg Group itself, it’s a private organisation, with a 60-year history of holding intensely private meetings: transparency doesn’t tend to make it onto their agenda. With so many politicians present, it would be nice to see some proper minutes of these meetings published, but that’s not going to happen unless the press and public push for it.
For now, if we want transparency at Bilderberg, it’s going to have to be provided by the politicians. Luckily, many of them who go to Bilderberg are avowed champions of transparency. Like David Cameron (Bilderberg 2008, 2013) who launched a war on out-of-control lobbying in a speech back in 2010, when he attacked the “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”.
In that speech, Cameron described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen.” At Bilderberg, that scandal happens every year. This year, it’s happening in Copenhagen, at the Marriott Hotel, from May 29th to June 1st.
Charlie Skelton is a writer on Have I Got News For You. He will be covering the conference for the Guardian, and tweeting on @deYook. He has helped put together a guide to the Bilderberg Conference at www.bilderbergmeetings.co.uk via Transparency International UK