With TTIP talks well under way, and the issue of ACPs and their policy for trade with the Union, I had the chance to have a chat Cecilia Malmström, Commissioner for Trade of the European Union.
Mrs Malmström listens politely, paying attention as I introduce each one of the people joining us on our Skype call. “This is Jonny, an organiser at the session; this is Theodor, one of the Editors; and this is Stefan, he’s the project manager at the International Office in Berlin”. “It’s great to know you all” she says, with a big smile on her face which genuinely looks happy, “it’s funny that we’re all in different countries, modern technology is amazing”.
10 minutes before that all us EYPers had started the Skype call, and 3 minutes after that we saw an elegant man appear on screen, “I’m Frederick, from the Commission. The Commissioner will be with you in a few minutes.” Another 10 minutes later a stressed looking woman comes into sight, quickly sits down and smiles. Big glasses and a kind of presence that even through a webcam makes me think that this woman likes to get things done.
A little research confirmed my initial impressions: Cecilia Malmström has a very impressive CV indeed. Born in 1968 in Sweden, it is the second time that she has been in an EU Commission (during Barroso’s, she was Commissioner for Home Affairs), and before making the jump to European politics she was the Minister for European Affairs in Sweden, a member of European Parliament and a university professor (not at the same time). You can tell she’s an experienced politician by the way in which she politely leads our conversation: before I can say anything, “Shall we start?”. Her involvement with young people is also notable, she understands the youth needs a voice, treats me with the same respect and attitude I imagine with she would treat a professional.
Our conversation continues with EYP, as I prompt her to give us her opinion on youth involvement in politics. “I love your initiative, I used to promote debates like yours in my university lectures” – Mrs Malmström has been to various sessions in the past – “I really hope I could go to as many EYP events as I’m invited to, but my schedule gets in the way a lot.”. About general involvement and the way in which people currently participate, she believes that not everything should be about party politics, that everyone does politics every day through conversation about policies and taxes, and that “even if you’re in the Red Cross, or Save The Children; everything is involvement and everything counts.”. Mrs Malmström, like most of us, seems worried about recent events, worried about the various events around the world that may be able to unstabilize organisations like the EU. “We are facing very difficult times today in the EU, and we need everyones involvement and everyones engagement in order to work towards a solution.”
In line with problems that the union might be facing I decide to ask about the TTIP. This trade agreement has received unanimous institutional support as all 28 member states have asked the commission towards the development of a trans-atlantic trade deal with the US, but in countries like Austria or Germany, more than 55% of the population have said they’re against the signing of the agreement. Malmström replies right away “Yes, this isn’t an issue in the US, they’re too busy with the TPP first. The truth is because of the TPP and the bad working standards in countries like Vietnam, there is a fear (amongst EU citizens) that signing the agreement will mean the US will lower standards and we’ll in turn lower them too if we sign the TTIP.” She’s very serious at this moment, you can tell that she believes in what she’s saying and in the potential that a trans-atlantic trade agreement could have. “We’re therefore pushing for transparency. Trade isn’t about a bunch of men in suits sitting in a room with a few very nerdy journalists deciding how world trade will work anymore. That’s all gone. Trade affects people and so we’re trying to make it about the people, and we’re trying to make everyone understand what it is about.” Criticisms, however, continue to be notable, once again concerning the possibility of the EU relaxing it’s legislation in favour of more lax US laws, regarding the chemical industry, for example. “People fear we might damage the EU model. With those people, we try to liaise. With others, people that believe that trade in essence is bad, there’s not much we can do.”
On the matter of transparency our conversation moves towards ACP’s (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries). “We’re observing the same kind of trend regarding trade with ACP’s: bad practices are a thing of the past, at least from a EU point of view”. The Commissioner revealed a new trade strategy for the EU a few weeks ago, a trade based on equality and investment “How we intend it to work is to have transparency and positive values alongside economic gains”. I’m especially interested in how the negotiations entail transparency, and how can we ensure equality when such a big power like the EU faces smaller ACP’s. Mrs Malmström smiles while she shakes her head. “We sit with our ACP counterparts. We sit with them and we talk with them and we engage with them; as equals. They propose their ideas and we propose ours and then we talk it out until we reach an agreement”. Because of the session’s INTA topic I enquire about how can a big conglomerate like the EU can help development in such countries, a question to which Malmström quickly responds “Sustainable development in more than a hope for the future: it is our duty. And as the EU we must push for it as much as possible. Of course it is a difficult task, but all the ACP’s want this, and so working with them is easier.”
I had imagined that self-determination might be an issue on this scale, as countries might feel forced to comply to anything the EU might propose, especially given the fact that a big part of their trade (we’re talking 50% or 60%) depends on the European Union. “On the contrary. We don’t force anything on them, and they understand that in order to help themselves they need to reduce their dependency on single organisations, be them the European Union or any other one body.” The Commissioner says that investments is the way forward, and her trade strategy reflects that through and through. “But responsible investment” she says, after I ask about the other key players in the global trade game “other big economic powers have no consideration for fundamental rights, countries like China aren’t very careful or considerate with ACP’s”. She believes that it can be done, though, through responsible thinking and good intentions “Look at Europe: many of the countries in the Union have historical ties with African countries, colonial ties even. And yet today we don’t patronise, today it is all about partnerships, and Europe is a very good partner, many African ministers will be glad to confirm that.” Malmström had just been back from a meeting with around 20 African ministers the day before our interview, and she closes the topic by making a statement in favour of this policy of good practise that she’s trying to make customary “We can’t control what others do, but our main tool is to adhere to international rules and legislate so that not only good practice prevails but fundamental rights are supported and ensured”.
Time then begins to run out “Ask your final questions! We have to begin concluding” As we’ve assessed the situation, and seen what the Commissioner would like the future to hold, I decide to go for the more abstract, to ask about a perfect world. How would that ideal world work in terms of trade? “Trade and politics go in hand. We would need a very strong World Trade Organisation, with all the countries in the world being represented, with binding rules that are respected” Malmström is passionate about this, she speaks rapidly and gets serious. “What everyone needs to understand, is that trade equals development. No country has ever come out of poverty without trade. It is an very powerful tool.”
The interview then finishes. As we say our goodbyes and thank-yous I am left thinking. It is very easy to agree with whatever a person says when they’re presenting it to you, especially when the presentation is as good as Mrs Malmström’s was – but the truth is, that there still are plenty of problems regarding this topic. The main piece of legislation on trade with ACP is the Cotonou agreement (agreement signed in 2000 to define the way in which the EU was going to be involved with ACPs in terms of economics and trade), which was revised in 2010 but it is set to expire in 2020. Moreover, some criticise its effectiveness due to the fact that some of the signing governments have not been the most stable. Climate change was recognised but not enough action has been taken against it according to most specialised agencies and most of the economic and trade cooperation was stopped in 2007. Lastly, various of the signing countries won’t reach the Millennium Development goals, which will be a big hit to their reputation.
So there are plenty of problems to solve. That’s pretty obvious. But that’s what politicians do. But seeing what has always happened, and being in a time in which love for politicians isn’t at an all time high, I am left thinking whether these problems can be solved, whether it is possible for ACPs and in general, smaller, poorer countries to ever get to the same level as countries in the Union in terms of protection of their citizens fundamental rights. Once thing I do know: if my little chat with Mrs Malmström is any indication of what politicians are like, there is some hope. If it is of any validity, people will undertake the tremendous task that this is, people will put in the work needed and in the end, there will be hope. Only time can tell.