Yesterday evening (and late into the night) freedom loving Europeans gathered in Brussels for the annual “Capitalist Ball” of the Centre for the New Europe (CNE). I founded CNE in 1993. The name was an idea of my wife’s. Lord Harris, who was helpful in finding sponsors, suggested Centre of the New Europe, which could be abbreviated to CoNE, a concept which he liked because it referred to seed. Hence it was slightly reminiscent of the name of the Flemish conservative magazine Nucleus (also suggested by my wife), which I founded in 1990. However, we did not want it to be the Centre of, but the Centre for the New Europe.
CNE was born out of the urge to create a European Heritage Foundation. As a young conservative journalist in Europe (one of the few) in the 1980s I found it bizarre that I always had to travel to the US in order to find, through the contacts of think tanks there, the addresses of likeminded Europeans. In 1993, with the assistance of Fernand Keuleneer, a Brussels lawyer, we began to look for funds to establish our own institute. The Flemish publishing company Roularta and the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which has a philosophy of supporting young people with new initiatives through the good care of Catherine Windels (the godmother of all think tanks), generously provided the first donations. Lord Harris of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Lord Rees-Mogg, Digby Anderson of the Social Affairs Unit, and Wilfried Prewo of the Hannover Chamber of Commerce gave invaluable advice.
At the 1994 general meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Cannes I was able to present the new think tank. Our first premises were in the Roularta Media Center in Zellik, along the Brussels ring road. The economist Paul Fabra (a Frenchman of Catalan origin) was CNE’s first director. Later Hardy Bouillon (a German, despite his name), Tim Evans (a Brit) and Mattias Bengtsson (a Swede) succeeded him.
Though occasionally I still attend CNE activities, I am no longer formally involved. In a sense the CNE experiment failed. It never became a Heritage Foundation with the seamless combination of both libertarianism and conservatism which is so typical for America and so uncommon for Europe.
Like Americans, I believe very strongly that the free market – and freedom tout court – cannot survive without cultural values rooted in what Americans call “social conservatism” and what Europeans would call “moral conservatism.” In Europe it is possible, though difficult, to find funding for the defence of liberal economic policies, but not if one combines these with moral conservatism. Sponsors willing to support the promotion of freemarket principles are deterred by an organisation that actively promotes social conservatism as well. This is the reason why the Social Affairs Unit, and Civitas, though both had their roots in the Institute of Economic Affairs eventually separated.
That is the major difference between CNE and the American examples – Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute – it was modelled on. While American conservative think tanks walk on two legs, CNE – and the numerous offspring in think tanks throughout Europe (allied in the Stockholm Network, an initiative that also sprouted from CNE) walks on only one. CNE deals with healthcare issues, competition, environmental problems, intellectual property, taxation – all very interesting and worthwhile – but issues which I personally feel are at least equally important, such as education (e.g. the homeschooling movements), the preservation of culture and national identity, the strengthening of families, are outside the CNE’s scope. The reason is very prosaic: there is no money to be found in Europe to address these problems. Worse still, the issues are very divisive among economic liberals in Europe, because they are to a large extent taboo in our secular society.
Four years ago CNE organised its first Capitalist Ball. The 2003 ball was organised in the Beurs, the building of the Brussels stock market, by Rich Miniter (then a Brussels based American). The following three balls would have been impossible without the organizing talent of Cécile Philippe (from France). Last year the venue of the ball moved from the Beurs to the salons of the Concert Noble, which was an improvement. The Beurs building was cold, and for some strange reason, the ball always seems to take place on the coldest day of the year in Brussels.
Because, until four years ago, Brussels lacked a classy society event for a multinational European public, the CB was an immediate success. The Economist's Charlemagne column wrote last year:
One of the more bizarre events on the Brussels calendar is the annual capitalist ball, staged by the Centre for the New Europe, a free-market think-tank with an appropriately Rumsfeld-like title.
The event has grown every year. A free dinner precedes a fine ball. Think tank people, scholars, civil servants from the European Commission, journalists, politicians, diplomats and businessmen fly in from all over Europe (and the US) to attend. They do it not just for fun, but because it is a unique networking opportunity. International gatherings, seminars and conferences are now being organised in the days before and the weekend after the CB. Because of the CB’s huge success, many people who would like to attend have to be turned down.
One thing, however, strikes me – and it is again a typically European thing. Last October I attended National Review’s 50th anniversary gala in Washington DC. This was a huge event. Like the CB it was sponsored by major companies. Unlike the CB a list of the sponsors is circulated. Companies do not have to hide the fact that they support the event for fear of negative publicity. In Europe private company donations are regarded as something almost immoral. This applies to both the fact of donating and that of receiving. Europe lives on subsidies, but handing out subsidies is regarded as permissible only if it is done by the state. In Europe the state is god, and hence saying that one believes in another god is a taboo. The state is the sole financial provider, and acknowledging that others have provided for you is a taboo. Companies who are willing to provide for others, especially if the latter are critical of the state, prefer to do this in secret. The state would hold it against them and the companies want to avoid making the state into an enemy. For the state, unlike the true God, is an unforgiving god.