Michael O’Leary hopped out of his limousine, saw me scuttling towards him with my camera, and darted off into departures. I hurried in after him.
Bilderberg: the world’s most secretive conference is as out of touch as ever
He looked tired. The Ryanair chief executive was heading home from Washington after his third Bilderberg conference, three gruelling days of hot-button geopolitical discussions and trying not to get stuck next to George Osborne at dinner.
I cornered him next to a terrible-looking airport steakhouse and, wearily, he agreed to answer a couple of questions. Around the notoriously tight-lipped Bilderberg group, this was a big step. Even though the annual conference is packed with government ministers, senators and party leaders, the public is resolutely denied even the most cursory press briefing
Attendees spotted by the press are for the most part still locked in a bizarre, pre-internet paradigm of hiding their faces behind copies of the Financial Times or even, in the case of one participant this year, bending double to avoid – heaven forfend! – being identified. The shame of it! Whatever would people say?
Judging from the hair and physique, and the glimpse of an earring in another photo, my guess is that the bent-double attendee might have been Ana Botín, head of Banco Santander. It says something about how messed up the relationship is between Bilderberg and the press that I’m trying to identify the executive chairman of one of Europe’s largest banks as she – or someone with similar hair – sprawls forwards in a minibus, into the lap of the former US treasury secretary Larry Summers. This is undignified for everybody involved.
At the airport, the Canadian finance minister, Bill Morneau, would not even grace journalists with a “no comment”. He had just spent a long weekend talking business and politics with the president of Canada’s largest bank.
O’Leary, at least, agreed to speak. I asked him about the top item on this year’s agenda: “The Trump administration: a progress report”. What was Bilderberg’s verdict?
O’Leary thought for a moment. “I would say … reasonable. He’s got things done, but there’s more to do.”
It sounds like Trump’s regulatory bonfire isn’t quite the howling blaze the CEOs and industrialists of Bilderberg would prefer, but it’s a step in the right direction. He’s got potential
Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, must have made a good case. Ross was a clever choice of envoy: a private equity billionaire, a former trustee of Brookings and a former Rothschild investment banker. He’d fit right in at Bilderberg.
I asked if O’Leary had found the conference useful. “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s always very useful.”
It’s worth wondering what “very useful” might mean to the ruthless CEO of a company that makes more than $1.5bn a year, an industry lobbyist who has privately petitioned politicians on behalf of Airlines 4 Europe, a man who once called environmentalists “lying wankers” and said they ought to be shot and the owner of a horse called “Rule the World”.
To the heads of Ryanair, Bayer, Axa, Fiat Chrysler, Airbus, Lazard and Google, “useful” is not a vague or fuzzy term. It means “financially worthwhile”. Something they value enough to clear time in their diaries, to get on a long-haul flight, to risk having to make small talk with George Osborne over cocktails.
If you want to know why O’Leary would want to join the steering committee of this annual, under-the-radar political summit, the answer lies in the nature of the beast. Bilderberg is plugged into the very highest levels of high finance and intelligence. There were two ex-CIA chiefs at this year’s conference: General David Petraeus and John Brennan, both of whom now work in the private sector. There was the current US national security adviser, HR McMaster, and a former director of MI6, Sir John Sawers, who now sits on the board of BP.
At its deepest level, the group is dominated by transnational finance and big business. The conference chairman is a director of HSBC, the newly appointed treasurer is the head of Deutsche Bank, and the administrative body is run by a senior adviser to Goldman Sachs.
The relationship between Bilderberg and Goldman Sachs runs deep. This year’s conference featured senior figures from the bank; the annual returns of American Friends of Bilderberg, a tax-exempt group, show it registered to the address of a Goldman Sachs board member, James A Johnson. Its sister organisation, the UK-based Bilderberg Association, is heavily funded by Goldman Sachs and registered to the business address of Simon Robertson, former managing director of the bank’s London operation, Goldman Sachs International.
The current chairman of Goldman Sachs International, José Manuel Barroso, sits on the Bilderberg steering committee, alongside the chairman of the bank’s international advisory board, Robert Zoellick. In other words, if Goldman Sachs is the “vampire squid” that Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi said it was, Bilderberg is its brain: doing the deep thinking, inviting historians and futurists’ perspectives, trying to work out where the world is going, doing its best to make sure everything stays more or less on course.
What might this course be? One of the historians invited to this year’s shindig was Stephen Kotkin of Princeton, who wrote recently that it was “up to Russia’s leaders to take meaningful steps to integrate their country into the existing world order”. This statement chimed exactly with an item on the conference agenda, “Russia in the international order”, but also suggested a flicker of optimism not shared by some of the anti-Putin brigade at Bilderberg, such as Radosław Sikorski of Harvard.
Chantilly in the spotlight: inside the secretive Bilderberg's 'home from home'
Some at this year’s Bilderberg have a financial interest in the international order being a bit more disorderly: the CEO of Airbus, a board member of Boeing, the chairman of the Saab group. They are in the business of selling weaponry, so a bit of friction on the eastern front might do wonders to warm up their bottom line.
When it comes to China, Bilderberg has a more consistently positive attitude. The Chinese ambassador to the US attended this year, although he did so at the same moment the US secretary of defense, James Mattis, was firing off a warning to Beijing about the South China Sea.
Some might think the presence of such a senior diplomat at a private conference would bring Bilderberg close to a breach of the Logan Act, which forbids US citizens from negotiating independently with foreign governments in dispute with the US.
But never mind: this year’s conference was a great success. The sun came out, the delegates kept their heads down, and there was only one arrest: a 62-year-old Swiss lady in love-heart sunglasses called Maria.
She had travelled to Virginia with some friends, seeking to heal Bilderberg with positive vibrations. But after a strenuous session working with her vibrational discs, she crossed the security line in an attempt to use a portable toilet. She found herself clapped in handcuffs and led off to be charged with trespassing