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What – and who – is Bilderberg?

This week Switzerland is hosting some of the Western world’s top players in government and business at the secretive Bilderberg meeting. What’s it all about?

The Bilderberg gathering began in the middle of the Cold War as a discussion club for European and American leaders intended to be a bulwark against Communist ideology. The event first took place in 1954 at the Bilderberg hotel in the Dutch town of Oosterbeek. Since then it has been held every year, always in a different location.

Participants are invited by members of the steering committee and the guest list changes annually. This year’s edition will take place from May 30 to June 2 at Montreux’s Palace hotel. It will be the first Bilderberg meeting held in French-speaking Switzerland, but other parts of the country have already hosted five editions of the event since the 1950s.

Who’s turning up?

Nearly 130 people will attend the 2019 event, about a quarter of whom are women. Apart from ten guests from Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria and Estonia, everyone comes from North America and Western Europe. The meeting is private and participants are responsible for their own travel and accommodation expenses. They must come alone, without a spouse or assistant. They stay inside the hotel during the three days of discussions.

On the list this year are current or retired government ministers such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, France’s Bruno Le Maire, Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen. Other 2019 attendees include top executives and directors from organisations like the Bank of England, Google, Microsoft and NATO. Jared Kushner, personal advisor and son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, will also be there.

On the Swiss side, Ueli Maurer, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, will be the first sitting president to take part in the three days of debates. He will meet business leaders from Swiss-based companies such as Roche and Credit Suisse, as well as industrialist André Kudelski, organiser of this edition of the Bilderberg conference.

What’s on the agenda?

Bilderberg defines itself as an instrument to “promote dialogue between Europe and North America”. It is a forum for informal discussions, where everyone speaks on their own behalf and therefore does not formally represent their government, company or organisation.

This year’s themes run the gamut from the future of Europe and Brexit to China, Russia, climate change and sustainability, space, artificial intelligence, digital threats and the future of capitalism.

It’s a global conspiracy, isn’t it?

Bilderberg is a top subject among conspiracy theorists who argue that the group has the power to start wars and become a kind of shadow world government.

In the face of such criticism, the club has gone from a quasi-secret institution to simply a discreet one. For a few years it has maintained this simple website, which says the meetings have one main goal: “to foster discussion and dialogue”.

“There is no desired outcome,” it continues. “There is no closing statement, there are no resolutions proposed or votes taken, and the organisation does not support any political party or viewpoint.”

Just another global forum?

Bilderberg may well be just another international forum, but without publicity. Its organisers insist that remaining discreet allows participants to express themselves more freely than they would under pressure from the media, a negotiating mandate or public opinion.

Nevertheless, the club remains very much steeped in Western ideology, committed to the values of democracy and freedom – and entrepreneurship.

“Talking about the future of capitalism does not mean that we consider it to be the only possible system,” organiser André Kudelski told the Swiss newspaper 24 Heures.