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Events on campus: Trade deals - a modern kind of warfare?

In recent years, one term that has dominated the news headlines regarding international trade: ‘trade wars’. Especially the rise in tensions between the United States and China, two of the biggest economies on the planet, has economists worried about its impact on the global economy. The European Generation saw this as an opportunity to organize a talk at Bocconi University to discuss what is at stake for the European Union and what we might be able to do to prevent these conflicts from further escalation.

To this end, we had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Carlo Altomonte, Alessia Mosca and Edoardo Vigna. Carlo Altomonte is the Associate Professor of Economics of European Integration at Bocconi and the Director of the Globalization and Industry Dynamics unit within the Baffi Carefin research centre. Alessia Mosca was a Member of the European Parliament from 2014 until 2019, serving on the Committee for International Trade. Currently, she is the Secretary General of the Italy-ASEAN Association. Edoardo Vigna is a journalist and the editor-in-chief for the Corriere della sera. Just recently he published his book Europa. La meglio gioventù, in which he explores the attitudes of young Europeans.

As an introduction, each speaker gave a short summary of their experiences and their view on the role of the European Union in international trade. It became clear that the EU, as the largest single market in the world, depends heavily on the growth of international trade. The tensions between the US and China pose a danger to this growth and increase the uncertainty that international businesses all around the globe have to face.

This dependance is also reflected in the attitudes of European citizens: a recent round of the Eurobarometer reports a rather positive perception of the effects of international trade on the EU. Young Europeans are the most positive about international trade, being a digital-native generation that (at least in western Europe) grew up with free travel and few borders.

Afterwards, the panel was opened up to questions from the audience. Replying to the question if and how the EU can exert influence on the international level, the speakers pointed out another dimension of international trade. While the EU traditionally has a hard time to agree on a unified stance in international affairs, trade agreements represent a powerful tool to push for political and social reforms in partner countries. There is also an economic rationale behind promoting higher working and environmental standards since wage and ecological dumping in partner countries is likely to put European business at a disadvantage.

Another audience member questioned the positive perception of international trade by EU citizens and asked whether an urban-rural divide exists in the attitudes towards this issue. The panelists agreed that the rather negative attitudes found, for instance, in Italy can partly be attributed to a larger rural population. Since the EU’s competitive advantage is in high skilled labour and services, international trade might even contribute to a deepening of this divide. However, programmes like the EU structural and cohesion funds already try to counterbalance this through investments in rural regions.

Despite all of the issues that were discussed the debate ended on a rather positive note.The EU has always managed to overcome differences in members' national interests; therefore, the panelists agreed, it can be expected to play an active role in solving international trade disputes also in the future.

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