We recently described the surprising lack, given the horrendous impact that irresponsible financial market behaviours have had on our countries' economies, of civil society engagement in the world of finance. We argued that there was a need for a ‘Greenpeace moment’, a popular reaction that would lead to the establishment of a civic watchdog of financial markets. Well, a first step in this direction was formally taken a few days ago with the creation of Finance Watch, a small think tank based in Brussels.
Although the initiative is still very much in the making (and subject to funding, as the promoters have clarified), it is already planning a public launch in June, the appointment of a secretary general and the setup of a dozen staff team in July. Its goal is to provide a counterforce to financial actors’ massive lobbying efforts and affect policy making at the European Union level. Its strategy will be based on two tasks: (1) build expertise to conduct research into financial markets, and (2) promote advocacy/lobbying campaigns. Its funding philosophy will allow for private and public donations, but no funds will be accepted from banks or financial services providers.
Finance Watch originates out of a public call for a civic voice in finance made by European Parliamentarians in mid 2010 and, ever since, has been led by some progressive MEPs, especially in France and Germany. As an umbrella organization, its membership is made up of other civil society groups including, among others, Attac France, Friends of the Earth Europe, New Economics Foundation, Oxfam, Tax Justice Network and the EU office of Transparency International. Although it starts as a European organization, it has got the potential to grow much further and become a global reference point.
European parliamentarians must be commended for having taken the initiative. Understandably, the initial focus of Finance Watch will be concentrated on working with European institutions (both Commission and Parliament) to provide on the one hand a detailed analysis of the fiscal and financial reforms currently on Brussels’ agenda (this is what the organization calls the 'reactive' approach), and on the other to investigate the dark recesses of the financial industry (a 'proactive' approach).
Lobbying work will target legislators and regulators with the objective of translating Finance Watch's principles and goals into implementable measures.
The future credibility and scope of Finance Watch will very much depend on its capacity to involve organized civil society and gain grass-roots public support. Studies, analyses and targeted research are fundamental, but their impact needs to be amplified by widespread engagement. Financial markets have not only the political clout, but also the mass communication strategies to forge support and appeal to common investors. A civic watchdog cannot fight this battle if it remains a study group in the rarefied Brussels atmosphere.
Politicians can be instrumental and helpful to kick start the engine, but more direct involvement will be required by the NGO community and, importantly, by likeminded funders. If it can achieve this, Finance Watch may be able to grow into the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens and become independent not only of banks, but also of politicians. This is the essence of a Greenpeace moment for financial markets. What starts today as a think tank of experts and policy makers will need to become, hopefully not too far into the future, a popular movement that can start to shape the political landscape.