30.05.2024 • Foreign influence?

The Koch-funded Atlas Network is also targeting Europe

The influence of the Atlas Network – a web of libertarian and ultraconservative think tanks funded by billionaires such as the Kochs – has been well documented in the US, the UK, and more recently Argentina following the election of Javier Milei. Its growing presence in the EU has been less examined. But the next EU elections could deliver a political landscape even more favourable to their ideas. This article takes a look at some of the Atlas Network’s partners in Brussels and their activities.

Published on 30 May 2024

The European Liberty Forum, held in Madrid on 23 and 24 May [1], is an event organised by the Atlas Network – a global association of libertarian, free-market, and ultra-conservative think tanks and organisations – which brings together most of its European partners, just a few days before the EU elections. It comes on the heels of another gathering of the international far right, also in Madrid, organised by the Spanish party Vox, and attended by Marine Le Pen, the Italian and Hungarian Prime Ministers Georgia Meloni and Viktor Orban, Argentine President Javier Milei and close allies of Donald Trump such as Roger Severino of the Heritage Foundation [2]. The proximity between both events is telling. The Heritage Foundation is a key member of the Atlas Network, and Milei’s radical austerity and deregulatory political platform is heavily influenced by Atlas Network think tanks. Both events are a symbol of a far right on the rise in Europe, electorally but also – and perhaps just as importantly – from the perspective of the ‘battle of ideas’.

Based in Arlington, Virginia, the Atlas Network is a major network of think tanks and other organisations working around the world to “change the climate of ideas”. Founded in 1981 by British battery farm entrepreneur Antony Fisher, the Atlas Network aims to blanket the world with libertarian think tanks, modelled on his original Institute of Economic Affairs (IAE) in the UK which contributed to Margaret Thatcher’s victory. According to its 2023 annual report, it has 589 partners in 103 countries and a budget of 28 million US dollars [3]. Its members in the United States include influential think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute. Behind the Atlas Network are right wing billionaires and foundations such as the Koch’s and the Templeton Foundation, as well as major corporations in sectors such as oil, tobacco and pharmaceuticals. The Atlas Network is a reflection of a wider alliance, in the US, between economic libertarians – with their anti-climate, anti-regulation and anti-social justice agenda – and ultraconservatives which focus on issues such as abortion, migrants and minority rights.

To “change the climate of ideas”, the Atlas Network and its partners use a range of influence strategies that sometimes involve manipulation, such as offering falsely neutral expertise or ‘astroturfing’. With these methods, the Atlas Network’s partners have scored important political victories all over the world: spreading climate denialism, influencing referendum outcomes (the Voice in Australia, the referendum on the Chilean constitution, Brexit, etc.) and electing Javier Milei in Argentina. British journalist Georges Monbiot recently asked in The Guardian: “What links Rishi Sunak, Javier Milei and Donald Trump?” Answer: the Atlas Network.

Just as it has in Argentina, in France, and around the world (read our recent investigation in French), the Atlas Network supports, nurtures and promotes its partners throughout Europe. Wherever its influence is felt it promotes a ranch of ultra free market policies that inevitably involve tax cuts for the rich, slashing public spending, massive deregulation, and opposition to climate justice, backed by well-resourced but mostly hidden funders. The politics it is promoting in Europe are no exception, and reflect a similar alliance between extreme neoliberal policies and radical conservative causes, as seen in the US.

The ‘Liberty Forum’ is co-organised by one of Atlas Network’s partners in Spain, the Foundation for the Advancement of Freedom (Fundalib). In 2023, Fundalib won an international award from the Atlas Network for its work in favour of tax cuts for freelancers and businesses. Fundalib also works on other issues, such as climate change; in 2019 it formed an alliance with another Spanish think tank, the Juan de Mariana Institute (JMI), also a partner of the Atlas Network, which was recently described as the epicentre of climate obstructionism in southern Europe [4]. Fundalib is cultivating relationships in another camp of European politics: that of the liberals (ALDE - Renew Europe), which include the French Macronists. In April 2024, Fundalib’s President Roxana Nicula was in Brussels to be formally welcomed as a member by the European Liberal Forum [5], the political foundation of the ALDE Party (not to be confused with Atlas’ Europe Liberty Forum previously mentioned).

The European Liberal Forum is also partnering with the Free Market Road Show, alongside dozens of neoliberal and libertarian organisations, many of which are members of the Atlas Network [6]. Launched in Brussels on 5 March, the 2024 edition of this libertarian grand tour featured events in a number of major European cities with the objective of disseminating libertarian ideas and networking with national and international allies. The Paris session was held on 13 March at the headquarters of ALEPS (Association pour la liberté économique et le progrès social, a historical pillar of the Atlas Network in France), and was organised by IREF (Institut de recherches économiques et fiscales). The road show culminated in London on 21 May, with an event organised by the Legatum Institute, which was a key player in the Brexit campaign [7].

It is no coincidence that libertarian networks are so active on the old continent in the run-up to crucial EU elections at the beginning of June. While the European Union has always been grounded in free trade principles, it has also been the source of important regulations in many areas, which libertarians have always reviled. This is why most of the British members of the Atlas Network actively encouraged their country’s exit from the EU [8]. At the same time – and more discreetly – other of Atlas Network’s partners have worked within the Brussels bubble and engaged with EU institutions to push their agenda, such as the signing of numerous free trade agreements (see below). With the rise of the far right across Europe and the election of leaders sympathetic to their ideas in several countries, such as Italy and the Netherlands recently, they see an opportunity to push Europe towards even more deregulatory and less protective policies.

In fact, the Atlas Network’s influence in Europe is not confined to member states’ capitals, but also extends to Brussels, where most of the EU institutions are based. One of its most influential members in Europe is Epicenter (European Policy Information Center) [9]. It recently published a report on the Single Market which takes aim at the platform workers directive and the EU regulation of Big Tech and AI. Epicenter publishes a ranking of so-called "nanny states" aimed at denouncing countries that ‘restrict’ the individual freedom of their citizens for example by regulating alcohol and tobacco. These rankings and studies – all geared towards defending the least possible interference with the corporate agenda – are conceived and readily circulated via media soundbites. The ranking is promoted at national level by Atlas Network’s local partners, such as the Institut Molinari in France. As a result, Epicenter boasts that in 2023 it reached 250 million European citizens and has been mentioned more than 300 times in the media.

The Atlas Network has recently added yet another partner in Brussels: the European chapter of the US Tax Foundation, which promotes “investor-friendly” taxation and opposes fiscal justice reforms. Despite being relatively new at EU level, this organisation is already very well connected politically. The manager of the European tax administration attended its launch event in Brussels on 23 February 2024, and even welcomed the arrival of this new player in the Brussels bubble [10].

Below, we present in more detail three other partners of the Atlas Network active in EU policies, which illustrate the different themes and modes of action promoted by the network.

ECIPE: highly biassed expertise on free trade

ECIPE (European Centre for International Political Economy) is a think tank which claims to stand for liberal ideas in the classical sense of the term. It specialises in trade and is a strong advocate of free trade agreements. It is an active promoter of deals such as the EU and Mercosur trade deal, which has recently been much criticised by European farmers. In June 2023, in the run-up to the Spanish EU Presidency, ECIPE defended the project in an article published in El Pais, a leading Spanish daily, claiming it would boost Spain’s growth. In 2021, a former senior employee of the think tank was already calling for ratification of the agreement with the four South American countries, including Brazil and Argentina [11]. She is now Director of CropLife International, the international pesticide producers’ lobby group. In March 2024, a few days before French senators voted against CETA, the trade agreement between the EU and Canada, ECIPE translated into French and promoted on its website an article co-authored by a European Commission official promoting the deal.

Beyond such public interventions over current events, the think tank is often praised for its ’independent’ expertise in major media outlets, such as Politico, a daily newsletter read by European decision-makers at the highest level, and Borderlex, the reference for European trade negotiators. In December 2023, when taking stock of five years of trade policy conducted by the European Commission, for example, Politico quoted two non-institutional sources, including ECIPE. In January 2024, when the European Parliament magazine commented on agricultural protests, ECIPE was again cited in reference to the treaty with Mercosur. The think tank is also considered a source of independent expertise by the European Parliament’s internal think tank, which cited it as a reference in a recent paper on US-EU trade policy [12]. Indeed, ECIPE’s current director Fredrik Erixon was ranked by the Financial Times as one of the 30 most influential people in the Brussels European bubble [13].

A think tank backed by multinationals and governments

This omnipresence in the media and its links with the European institutions no doubt explain ECIPE’s influence and its effectiveness in the defence of free trade. The think tank is generally perceived and presented as objective and apolitical. However, ECIPE is a think tank funded by those that benefit from EU trade agreements: large corporations. According to data provided by ECIPE in the European Transparency Register, the think tank receives 250,000 euros a year from the Foundation for Free Enterprise, the foundation of the Swedish Confederation of Enterprises. This confederation (the Swedish equivalent of MEDEF) also pays 100,000 euros directly to the ECIPE each year [14]. But ECIPE does not list all its funders in the European lobby register. In response to our requests, the think tank sent us an updated list of its sponsors, which includes digital giants such as Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft, car manufacturers such as Daimler and Volkswagen, the fossil fuel sector (British Petroleum, Repsol and Shell) and French companies (Alstom, Carrefour, Lafarge, SEB and Veolia). Two chambers of commerce (Paris and Stockholm) have also provided financial support to ECIPE.

ECIPE also received money from several foreign ministries (Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand), which certainly saw this collaboration as a way of speeding up the ratification of trade treaties with the EU. According to ECIPE, this funding was used in particular for research projects into the state of bilateral trade relations. A sign of ECIPE’s influence and reputation is that its past funders include the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

An Atlas Network partner in Brussels

The director of the ECIPE, Fredrik Erixon, is a former employee of a Swedish think tank, Timbro, which is also a funder of ECIPE. According to Le Monde, Timbro – which is close to the Swedish conservative party – has succeeded in pushing deregulation and tax cuts onto the political agenda in Sweden, even within the Social Democrat party. It is also an important nexus in the political career of many Swedish conservatives: many secretaries of state and members of ministerial cabinets have worked there. ECIPE is located at the same address as Timbro, and both organisations have been prominent members of the Atlas Network for many years. According to internal network documents that we have been able to consult, in 1993 Timbro celebrated its 15th anniversary in Stockholm in partnership with the Atlas Network. ECIPE is funded by the ultraconservative Templeton Foundation, one of the Atlas Network’s key funders which also supported the Madrid Liberty Forum.

Consumer Choice Center: a front group for the ultra-rich and agribusiness

The Washington-based Consumer Choice Center (CCC) claims to be a global movement of grassroots organisations. Yet it recently sponsored an event in Davos [15]: its EU representative Bill Wirtz attended this year’s annual gathering of the world’s richest, where he was able to take a selfie with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo. He took advantage of his trip to visit a research centre of chemical giant Bayer in France, to “talk about science” with its head Philippe Méresse, a fellow strong critic of environmentalists [16].

A bogus consumer association

While it proclaims itself a ‘representative of consumers’, the CCC is above all a lobbying front group; it admits its role as lobbyist in the European register. Its specialty? ‘Astroturfing’, in other words, hiding the fact that it is defending the interests of corporations and the rich behind a false appearance of the grassroots mobilisation of ordinary people. The source of its funding is not known. CCC Director Frederik Roeder said in 2017, when the organisation was founded, that it would not accept government funds but that it was “totally open” to corporate donations [17]: "I know lots of corporations and businesses are going to see the value in supporting Consumer Choice.” Roeder remained silent when asked by a journalist from Le Monde in 2021 for details of his organisation’s membership and funding.

How can the CCC claim to speak on behalf of consumers? Consumers are already represented in Brussels by the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, a federation of 43 consumer associations from 31 European countries. Yet, in 2020, communicating with the European Commissioner for Agriculture, the CCC claimed to represent no less than two million consumers in Europe [18]. It is not clear where this figure comes from (CCC did not answer our questions). It could be – following the practice of other members of the Atlas Network [19] – the cumulative number of signatures collected by the Center’s petitions.

A loyal ally of industry

Agriculture is one of Bill Wirtz’ and the CCC’s favourite topics, and they are resolutely on the side of agrochemical and seed corporations. CCC is a member of a European coalition for agricultural innovation, the Biocontrol Coalition, whose members include GMO giant Syngenta [20]. Bill Wirtz described environmentalists as ‘conspiracy theorists’ in 2020 in the British libertarian magazine Spiked, which has been financially supported by the ultra-conservative Charles Koch Foundation. For multinationals like Syngenta, the CCC’s work is particularly useful. When Bill Wirtz tweets, produces a podcast or takes part in debates, he is seen not as a GMO salesman but as a consumer. This allows messages identical to those of the industry to be repeated through ‘non-commercial’ channels, creating the kind of apparently independent echo chamber that is a key feature of the Atlas Network approach.

This bogus consumer association is also very close to the tobacco industry. It defends the freedom to vape and criticises all forms of taxation on tobacco and e-cigarettes [21]. Bill Wirtz’s appearance at Davos this year was to talk about tobacco and “harm reduction”, a tobacco industry concept that encourages smokers to turn to nicotine inhalers. According to the European lobby register, the Consumer Choice Center funded the World’s Vapers Alliance to the tune of 58,500 euros in 2023 [22].

The CCC also came out in 2020 to denounce the planned taxation of domestic flights in the EU, and the plans for green taxes on aviation, as unacceptable attacks on individual freedoms [23].

A libertarian ideology

The Consumer Choice Center was created in March 2017 as an offshoot of Students For Liberty (SFL), a libertarian organisation close to US ultra-conservative funders the Koch brothers [24]. Students for Liberty provides training to young libertarians around the world so that they learn how to organise, launch projects and communicate. According to Stefan Aćimović, the director of Students For Liberty’s European programmes, the organisation provides “informal education that offers students opportunities to pursue a political career”. He points out that MEPs, ruling vice-presidents and academics have passed through SFL training courses [25].

Both CCC and SFL have links with European political parties. SFL is a partner of the European Liberal Forum, a grouping of European parties, including Macron’s Renaissance party in France. Luca Bertoletti, senior lobbyist for the CCC in 2023 was in charge of SFL’s international development until 2020. He also set up a public relations firm B&K Agency in 2020, which he now chairs. This agency funded the far-right European party ECR, chaired by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, to the tune of €18,000 in 2023, the maximum authorised donation. This is not the only financial connection between the far-right European party and Students for Liberty identified by Politico.

CCC is also a key member of the Atlas Network in Europe. At the end of 2023, Zoltán Kész, European Director of the Consumer Choice Center, attended the Atlas Network’s annual forum in New York [26] (he was also a speaker at the Madrid Liberty Forum). According to internal documents we have been able to consult, he was “noticed” by the network as early as 2010. He complemented his university training with two courses provided by members of the Atlas Network, the Cato Institute in 2008 and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 2010.

The lessons Zoltán Kész learned in the United States are now being applied to the European elections campaign. CCC has launched a campaign and website to “help European voters navigate the complex landscape of political candidates vying for seats in the European Parliament in 2024” [27].

The “Consumer Champs” website [28] – published from the US – ranks MEP candidates based on their answers to certain questions. At the top of the table with 110 points are German liberal candidates, followed in 3rd place by a Swedish far-right candidate. Some of the questions are almost grotesque. In the section on fuel prices and climate change, only one answer gives 10 points: “reduce fuel taxes”. Raising these taxes or promoting green and alternative public transport does not result in any points for candidates. On food issues, candidates receive 10 points for legalising GMOs and 5 for reducing agricultural subsidies.

This “consumers’ association”, with no consumers among its members, is in reality a lobby group with a clear ideology: that public authorities must let corporations have their way.

Free Trade Europa: labour rights as a “violation of freedoms”?

Although verbal violence is not uncommon on X (formerly Twitter), it is unusual to see a lobbyist publicly rejoicing at the failure of an EU Council Presidency initiative. And even less praising other Member States for giving the Spanish government a ’bloody nose’ when it failed to find a consensus on a law giving employment rights to platform workers [29]. Yet that is exactly what Free Trade Europa did, amply demonstrating the extent to which, at the end of December 2023, on the issue of the legal status of platform workers, two diametrically opposed visions of the world were clashing.

It was in particular Emmanuel Macron’s France that, in alliance with Estonia, Greece and Germany, defeated the platform workers directive, and Glen Hodgson – head of Free Trade Europa – seems to be congratulating them in his tweet. The initial draft directive drawn up by the European Commission offered the possibility for platform workers – so, people making deliveries for Deliveroo, driving for Uber, etc – to claim the status of employees with the corresponding social rights, which they do not enjoy under a self-employed or freelance status: accident insurance, paid holidays, a minimum wage and union representation. The law was approved after a long lobbying battle [30], but then blocked at the last minute at the Council of the EU, at the behest of France in particular. It was eventually greenlighted in an even more watered-down version in March.

Glen Hodgson is a lobbyist who used to work for one of the most influential law firms of the Brussels bubble, Hill & Knowlton [31]. Jonathan Hill, its founder, was an advisor to tobacco manufacturers in the 1950s, and is considered one of the inventors of the ‘manufacturing doubt’ strategy over the harms caused by these products, which was subsequently applied to, for example, asbestos and fossil fuels. Today, Hodgson heads a think tank based in Sweden that he set up himself: Free Trade Europa.

Free Trade Europa claims to give a voice to workers who want to remain self-employed and freelancers. Above all, it is one of the Brussels partners of the Atlas Network, which gave it funding in 2022 and a platform on its website to promote a resolutely libertarian vision of work, describing the minimum wage, the right to union representation and other labour rights as infringements of personal freedoms.

Free Trade Europa provides little public information on its lobbying activities. It only registered in the European Commission’s Transparency Register at the beginning of May 2024, declaring an annual lobbying expenditure of between €100,000 and €200,000, for a staff of 9 (3.8 full time equivalents). In addition to the issue of platform workers, it says it is also working on the Green Deal and trade issues. Glen Hogdson recently published an article in the European press, paid for by an alcohol industry lobby group, in which he argues that European institutions should listen more to the voice of business and seek their input when drafting legislation [32].

Free Trade Europa lobbied Swedish diplomats in Brussels [33] over the Platform Workers Directive, commissioned a survey concluding that freelancers were happy at work [34], and launched a petition against the EU directive signed by over 12,000 people. The petition was then sent to an Estonian Minister and was mentioned by several European media [35]. Some of these articles were paid for by Free Trade Europa [36]. Free Trade Europa is also a member of SME Connect, which also claims to defend the interests of the self-employed and small businesses, but where Glen Hogdson rubs shoulders with Big Tech lobbyists and conservative politicians [37].

After the final vote on the European law on platform workers, Glen talked with Pieter Cleppe, a journalist close to Flemish far-right party the NVA, and castigated the European Union for “regulating, regulating, regulating”. Free Trade Europa is one of a growing number of members of the Atlas Network in Brussels who are determined to roll back regulation, and are counting on the forthcoming European elections and the rise of the right and far right to find more allies in the institutions. The experience of the directive on platform workers shows that on certain issues they can also find common ground with liberals and some EU governments, particularly that of France.

With far right parties on the rise all over Europe, there are reasons to fear that after the June elections, the EU will tilt further towards a conservative, anti-climate and anti-regulation political agenda. Given the Atlas Network’s decades-long mission of “changing the climate of ideas” and pushing back on social justice and progressive environmental policies it appears to be seeking new allies and more open doors in the EU. With the Europe Liberty Forum which recently took place in Madrid, where 191 organisations from 47 countries were represented, it demonstrated its increased strength in Europe, including in Brussels. After Argentina, the UK, and many other countries, it now has the EU in its sights.

Lora Verheecke, with Olivier Petitjean for the introduction and conclusion

Boîte Noire

This article was prepared as part of a larger report about the Atlas Network and its influence in France. See: [Le réseau Atlas, la France et l’extrême-droitisation des esprits->rubrique153], May 2024 Photo: Teemu Mäntynen cc by-sa

Notes

[3See: https://admin.atlasnetwork.org/assets/documents/financials/AtNet-2023An- nualReport_Online.pdf?_gl=1*1h3qko5*_ga*MTM1Mjg3MDQxMS4xNzAxNzA4MDE1*_ga_F992Z0Y4W1*MTcxMzk2N- jc0NC40NS4xLjE3MTM5NjY5NzAuMzIuMC4w

[9Website: ttps://www.epicenternetwork.eu/

[19See our report (about Contribuables associés)

[30See our report.


Les publications de l’Observatoire

Get in touch with us

  • Need more information?
  • Have a question?
  • Or an information to share?
Contact us