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We can't take freedom and democracy for granted

10th Brussels Wednesday Social on the impact of protectionism on open societies and the world economy

The world is experiencing increasing uncertainty, volatility and divided societies. Institutions, principles and values which once seemed stable, are constantly questioned and can no longer be taken for granted. Can the European Union still fulfill its promises of freedom, democracy, peace, prosperity, and open societies in these circumstances? These and other compelling questions were discussed at the 10th Wednesday Social in Brussels.

The 10th Brussels Wednesday Social hosted by METRO AG in cooperation with European Movement International, Forum Europe and EuroCommerce was attended by over 250 guests from politics, business and civil society.

A Summary of the Evening

The new format with two panel discussions and a keynote interview brought together once again people from different areas of expertise who shared their perspectives and views on the impact of protectionism on open societies and the world economy.

In his opening speech, Petros Fassoulas, Secretary General of European Movement International, highlighted that the EU is going through a crucial, defining moment, since a new wave of populistic and nationalistic politics is threatening long-fought successes such as open societies, democracy and peace in Europe. Moreover, he emphasised that it was important and high time for citizens to "stand up for Europe, for democracy, for openness" and considered the upcoming European elections in May 2019 as a unique possibility to take a clear stand and defend such values.

What are the consequences of protectionism for open societies, democratic values & institutions?

The first panel, moderated by Paul Adamson, focused on the compatibility of open societies and protectionism. Corinna Horst, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, stated that open societies implied institutions opened to diversity as well as laws and governments that could be held accountable. Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau, agreed with this statement and added that EU institutions can be challenged and criticised by civil society too; however, choosing the right moment to do this was important to avoid the instrumentalisation of such critiques by populistic forces. For Marco Cilento, Senior Advisor of the European Trade Union Confederation, open societies and economies were key to make companies (and thus, the economy) thrive. Yet, he emphasised that social rights needed to be protected as well. Building on this, Carl Dolan, Director of Transparency International EU, emphasised the importance of giving citizens a voice and suggested that in light of recent developments, particularly on the world trade scene, we needed to adjust our thoughts about the meaning of protectionism. 

The questions with the audience touched upon issues such as the role of technology in making societies more open (or closer), the implications of protectionism for environmental politics and how nationalism is dividing Europe (again) and disrupting the Single Market.

A European press system to overcome biases and national tendencies?

According to Alex Barker, Brussels Bureau Chief of the Financial Times, the question of trust is crucial for the European Union and media play a fundamental role in this. In his interview with Paul Adamson, Alex Barker elaborated further on the current crisis of trust in the press. Moreover, he provided interesting insights into the EU decision making processes, the importance of reaching consensus and the implications of Brexit for the EU.

Protection vs protectionism?

In his introductory remarks to the second panel, Christian Verschueren, Director General of EuroCommerce, defended trade as a key tool to improve citizens' lives and welfare in our societies. In this sense, the EU's Single Market needs to be protected against increasing trade barriers that retail and wholesale companies are suffering across Europe.

Karl Brauner (Deputy Director General at the World Trade Organisation), Olaf Koch (CEO of METRO AG) and Cora Jungbluth (Senior Expert International Trade and Investment at the Bertelsmann Foundation) were the speakers of the second panel of the evening, moderated this time by the communications specialist Katrina Sichel.

In his initial statement, Karl Brauner praised METRO for enabling trade in many regions of the world by providing a platform for local businesses. Besides, he emphasised in a provocative manner that the WTO was not a free trade organisation, quite the opposite: WTO is an organisation established to set clear rules, frameworks and standards for world trade. Therefore, the current disputes between WTO's members are a clear reflection of what is happening in the world at the moment. In this regard, Cora Jungbluth stressed the manifold dangers that protectionism poses and reminded the audience that such policies have only short-term advantages, but lead in the end to welfare losses.

Protection is about empowerment

Olaf Koch, CEO of METRO AG drew attention to the need for companies to be able to compete in global markets in order to be successful in the long term. For Mr Koch, protection means empowerment. Indeed, we do not want to live in a world where everything is standardised, but in diverse societies, where citizens have freedom of choice. For that, we must empower small independent businesses that need support to compete against bigger global players.

The discussion with the audience focused the implication of free trade for SMEs, the current WTO reforms and the active role of citizens in the defence of open societies.

Maria Heider, Director of EU Affairs at METRO AG, closed an evening full of lively discussions and invited the guests to continue the debate over the dinner reception that followed. 

Clara Salarich-Ortega

Information about the author

Clara Salarich-Ortega works as Manager EU Affairs in the Representative Office of METRO AG in Brussels clara.salarich@metro.de