How much influence do private networks of the rich and powerful have on government policies and international relations? One group, the Bilderberg, has often attracted speculation that it forms a shadowy global government. As part of the BBC's Who Runs Your World? series, Bill Hayton tries to find out more.
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.
Bilderberg's head Viscount Davignon plays down the group's role in setting the international agenda
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 Netherlands.
"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 are.
Bill Clinton was featured at a Bilderberg meeting while he was governor of Arkansas
"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 modern world.
"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," he says.
Business influences society and politics influences society - that's purely 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 of ourselves."
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.