1. The Topic
Our round table was focused on international trade, and in particular we understood it in a wider sense as a tool for political and geopolitical issues. We decided to define the guidelines for the discussion by putting emphasis on two different topics, where the European Union was obviously the focal point: firstly its position in the Chinese and US trade war, and secondly the effect of import shocks and policies on voters, specifically the increase of populism consensus. Since, at the first moment, the discussion was to take place in April, we had to update our research in September, taking into account the many ways the COVID-19 crises changed the political and ideological scenario, also impacting our areas of interest. This was also an occasion for us to widen our perspective and enrich the debate in the round table.
The US-China trade war is one of the main concerns of the EU at the moment, as the world’s dynamics seem to be changing. This opens many possible scenarios: European actors worry that the effects could be very harmful for EU businesses, but on the other hand, if both old blocks result weakened by this dispute, the EU could stand to gain from it and could become a new world power. Which of these (and many other) possibilities will effectively become reality depends highly on the position that the EU decides to have now, so it is vital to define a strategy and the role we want to have in the world.
Regarding populism, the main idea behind the discussion is the academic evidence showing that there is a correlation between import shocks in some European areas and the increase in vote for populism. This finds ground for policy reflections and changes (mainly the Common Agricultural Policy). After COVID-19, this correlation might be even stronger, due to the economic damages that many small businesses have suffered.
2. The Discussion
The table started its work digitally with some kind of shyness between the participants. They were connected from every part of Europe and all in different places: some from the living room, others from the bedroom, and one even from a train. The first attempt we made to keep them engaged was to ask them to leave the webcam on, and so we could finally see each other, with all the different accents and different smiles. After a brief presentation from us chairs on our findings, we began a brainstorming session that occupied most of the first afternoon, which however was very prolific and set the ground for the work of the next morning.
The participants focused immediately on the first topic: the US-China trade war and the position of Europe. What was commonly agreed on was that it is not possible for the EU to have a relationship of subjection with neither of the two blocks, with opinion varying on how to achieve a more balanced position.
The longest part of the discussion was indeed centered on this point: the participants wondered if it was feasible or even desirable to remain neutral in this context. Some shared their desire to see the EU having a stronger role in the world’s dynamics, instead of limiting its contribution to fixing general guidelines and principles. On the other hand, participants were worried that taking a particular side could worsen the situation of the EU, by both deteriorating the economic relationship with one party and also subjecting oneself to the other.
Once again, it was only thanks to the variety of backgrounds, that the participants agreed on a solution that could solve this dilemma. For the time being, the EU does not have the strength to remain detached from its international partners, but is very much dependent on its economic relationships with both the USA and China. Only by increasing its competitiveness through innovation, digitalization and technological progress, can the EU emerge in the world stage with a stronger voice. However, the decision to support either of the two blocks for the time being should be context dependent, not based on ideological vicinity but on cost-benefits analyses.
Furthermore, the participants were interested in safeguarding the rules and principles on which the liberal international order rests, and thus recommend that the EU collaborates with the World Trade Organization. They stressed the importance of diversifying and improving the EU’s Free Trade Agreements and enhancing their existing relationships with other regional blocs, such as GCC and ASEAN.
Talking about the US-China trade war, we found many connections with populism, which then slowly became the focus of the conversation. The participants were very touched and worried about the consequences of the pandemic for small businesses and farmers, in addition to the already many problems they have in a more globalized world.
Between more liberal and conservative opinions, they came up with innovative ideas, such as a more symbiotic relationship and interplay between bigger and smaller enterprises, to dynamize the latter (by helping them with the training of workers, purchase of sustainable machinery and the implementation of environmental-friendly practices) by providing the former with tax cuts. Small enterprises were at the center of the discussion and, again, the participants came up with the suggestion for the EU to provide funds to increase competitiveness and enhance production processes of smaller enterprises, to allow for an even playing field such as environment-friendly production practices and adoption of new technologies.
One of the innovations following the COVID-19 crisis that was included in the conversation was the Recovery Fund. The participants asked for an equalitarian and efficient implementation and distribution of these funds, also through transparency procedures enhanced by existing European bodies. These bodies should assure that large scale dairy and crops producers, having better sources to access, are not favored, leaving behind the smaller farmers.
Finally, some time was left to discuss the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). All the participants agreed that it is a useful instrument, but might need a reconfiguration: they stressed the need for this instrument to prioritize the effective redistribution of wealth between small farmers and companies with large scale production, who have been continually benefited, in order to narrow the gap between these two realities.
3. The Chair's Opinion
To conclude, some words should be left to our personal experience, what we felt like being chairs and what it felt like to be part of this “abstract” EYD. To sum it up, it was a blast. Challenging, for sure, from the technical and ‘focus’ difficulties of online platforms, both for us and the participants, to the convergence of the different opinions. It was hard to moderate strong personal ideals and to not let the more dominant personalities take hold of the discussion, in order to get everyone equally involved. Some cancelled their participation just a few hours before the start of the meeting, but those who joined the discussion were always ready to spread their ideas and cooperate with the rest of the team.
In the end of the first two days, it felt good to close the computer after such long meetings on Zoom. On the last day, however, I hoped that the General Assembly would never end. When the participants expressed their feelings on this strange (in format) conference, and willingness to stay in touch, we felt rewarded for our efforts.
We just can’t wait to repeat this experience, hopefully in presence.