Inside the Secretive Bilderberg
The chairman of the secretive - he prefers
the word private - Bilderberg Group is 73-year-old Viscount Etienne
Davignon, corporate director and former European Commissioner.
In his office, on a private floor above
the Brussels office of the Suez conglomerate lined with political
cartoons of himself, he told me what he thought of allegations
that Bilderberg is a global conspiracy secretly ruling the world.
"It is unavoidable and it doesn't
matter," he says. "There will always be people who believe
in conspiracies but things happen in a much more incoherent fashion."
Lack of publicity
In an extremely rare interview, he played
down the importance of Bilderberg in setting the international
agenda. "What can come out of our meetings is that it is
wrong not to try to deal with a problem. But a real consensus,
an action plan containing points 1, 2 and 3? The answer is no.
People are much too sensible to believe they can do that."
Every year since 1954, a small network
of rich and powerful people have held a discussion meeting about
the state of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the problems facing
Europe and the US.
Organised by a steering committee of two
people from each of about 18 countries, the Bilderberg Group (named
after the Dutch hotel in which it held its first meeting) brings
together about 120 leading business people and politicians.
At this year's meeting in Germany, the
audience included the heads of the World Bank and European Central
Bank, Chairmen or Chief Executives from Nokia, BP, Unilever, DaimlerChrysler
and Pepsi - among other multi-national corporations, editors from
five major newspapers, members of parliament, ministers, European
commissioners, the crown prince of Belgium and the queen of the
"I don't think (we are) a global
ruling class because I don't think a global ruling class exists.
I simply think it's people who have influence interested to speak
to other people who have influence," Viscount Davignon says.
"Bilderberg does not try to reach
conclusions - it does not try to say 'what we should do'. Everyone
goes away with their own feeling and that allows the debate to
be completely open, quite frank - and to see what the differences
"Business influences society and
politics influences society - that's purely common sense. It's
not that business contests the right of democratically-elected
leaders to lead".
For Bilderberg's critics the fact that
there is almost no publicity about the annual meetings is proof
that they are up to no good. Jim Tucker, editor of a right-wing
newspaper, the American Free Press for example, alleges they organise
wars and elect and depose political leaders. He describes the
group as simply 'evil'. So where does the truth lie?
Professor Kees van der Pijl of Sussex
University in Britain says such private networks of corporate
and political leaders play an informal but crucial role in the
"There need to be places where these
people can think about the main challenges ahead, co-ordinate
where policies should be going, and find out where there could
be a consensus."
Will Hutton, an economic analyst and former
newspaper editor who attended a Bilderberg meeting in 1997, says
people take part in these networks in order to influence the way
the world works, to create what he calls "the international
common sense" about policy.
"On every issue that might influence
your business you will hear at first-hand the people who are actually
making those decisions and you will play a part in helping them
to make those decisions and formulating the common sense,"
And that "common sense" is one
which supports the interests of Bilderberg's main participants
- in particular free trade. Viscount Davignon says that at the
annual meetings, "automatically around the table you have
internationalists" - people who support the work of the World
Trade Organisation, trans-Atlantic co-operation and European integration.
Bilderberg meetings often feature future
political leaders shortly before they become household names.
Bill Clinton went in 1991 while still governor of Arkansas, Tony
Blair was there two years later while still an opposition MP.
All the recent presidents of the European Commission attended
Bilderberg meetings before they were appointed.
This has led to accusations that the group
pushes its favoured politicians into high office. But Viscount
Davignon says his steering committee are simply excellent talent
spotters. The steering committee "does its best assessment
of who are the bright new boys or girls in the beginning phase
of their career who would like to get known."
"It's not a total accident, but it's
not a forecast and if they go places it's not because of Bilderberg,
it's because of themselves," Viscount Davignon says.
But its critics say Bilderberg's selection
process gives an extra boost to aspiring politicians whose views
are friendly to big business. None of this, however, is easy to
prove - or disprove.
Observers like Will Hutton argue that
such private networks have both good and bad sides. They are unaccountable
to voters but, at the same time, they do keep the international
system functioning. And there are limits to their power - a point
which Bilderberg chairman was keen to stress, "When people
say this is a secret government of the world I say that if we
were a secret government of the world we should be bloody ashamed
Informal and private networks like Bilderberg
have helped to oil the wheels of global politics and globalisation
for the past half a century. In the eyes of critics they have
undermined democracy, but their supporters believe they are crucial
to modern democracy's success. And so long as business and politics
remain mutually dependent, they will continue to thrive.
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