"There are no long term winners in a protectionist world"

NEWS Published

EU Anna Stellinger, Deputy Director General International and EU Affairs, believes that the new European Commission must demonstrate that it can manage several issues simultaneously. “It must keep the Union and the single market together, stand up for free movement and maintain its focus on core areas.”

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Anna Stellinger is convinced that sustainability issues are here to stay. She also likes to link them to trade and innovation and believes that companies have a great deal to contribute.

Most recently Director General of Kommerskollegium, Sweden's Trade and Internal Market Authority, prior to that director of SIEPS, the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, Anna Stellinger arrives at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, as Deputy Director General International and EU Affairs, with an impressive portfolio. Particularly when you add her roles in several French think tanks, culminating in the French National Order of Merit.

– To a large extent, I will be working on the same issues as I did when I was Director-General of the Swedish National Board of Trade – free trade, trade policy, the internal market. These are issues where I already have a strong interest. The difference will be that rather than representing the ”state of Sweden”, I will represent the business community in Sweden. However, in our country, both interests are often aligned on these issues. This is a consensus that I think is important to protect.

A difference between the roles is the instruments that Anna Stellinger must work with. As Director General, her main tasks were to provide the government with analyses and to be an expert on issues in the field. Her new role is more about the impact.

–  International issues are increasingly important to us as a small country, heavily dependent on both imports and exports. We see a global trend towards greater protectionism in recent years, with messier trade policies; it is less predictable and stable than before. That is why it is more important than ever that we continuously reiterate that free trade with good conditions for businesses is what provides long-term growth and sustainability. 36 million jobs in the EU depend on our exports outside the EU. We constantly underline the vital role that companies play here.

The new European Commission has just begun its work, and expectations are high for this fast-moving environment. Stellinger believes that the Commission must demonstrate that it can manage several issues simultaneously.

– First, it must keep the Union and the single market together. It must stand up for free movement and maintain its focus on core areas. Europe must stand strong, recognising that although the single market will never be fully completed, it must be continuously maintained and developed. On Brexit, the EU needs to demonstrate strong leadership and to work to ensure good relations with the UK - not least on trade - can be maintained post-Brexit. However, the EU must also look beyond the single market and Brexit.

Stellinger believes that there is nowadays a risk that rules are less important than politics. We already see how several countries are questioning common regulations, particularly in the trade sector. This means, for example, that trade with third countries is increasingly difficult for businesses to navigate; uncertainty is increasing.

– Europe needs to think long-term. When trade regulations are being eroded, the WTO is being challenged and there are different barriers to increase trade globally, it becomes more complicated for business. They need predictability and stability. If you ask entrepreneurs what they want, they will often mention one specific issue – predictable and transparent rules.

She is convinced that sustainability issues are here to stay. She also likes to link them to trade and innovation and believes that companies have a great deal to contribute; indeed, none of the sustainability goals will be achieved without the private sector on board. It can bring increased growth for Swedish companies, offering opportunities to grow the business while contributing to long-term sustainability. This logic is something that she also hopes that the Commission will bear in mind when it makes further concrete proposals for its green agenda.

Swedish companies could make better use of the EU single market and free trade agreements; most people agree on that. However, what will be the role of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise – and thus Stellinger and her colleagues - in this?

– One ambition is to increase the presence of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise in the European and international arenas. I want us to be even better at influencing decisions and processes than we have been in the past, with better results for businesses big and small. We will support Swedish companies by striving to give them the best possible operating conditions – but this does not mean protecting them from competition. This is an important distinction, as competition is fundamentally good and something we want to keep, but it needs to be a healthy competition. Regulations should be respected, both in the internal market and globally. We need to speak out when, for example, countries use state aid, require technology transfer or fail to respect intellectual property protection. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise can make a greater contribution to shaping the design of rules, laws and policies. I hope that we will become a stronger voice with more influence in these contexts.

The coming year will be interesting from an international perspective; Stellinger thinks it will start and end with Brexit. In theory, the short time frame makes the British Brexit plan impossible. No free trade agreement has ever been negotiated in 11 months. This will undoubtedly colour much of the EU agenda during the year. Initiatives such as a new European industrial policy and a the European Green Deal will also be a focus, and here it is important that we remain constantly vigilant that the openness and trade that has benefited Sweden and Swedish companies is not undermined. Furthermore, we have to expect tough discussions on the free trade agenda, mainly on the Vietnam and Mercosur agreements.

– One important event is the WTO Ministerial Conference this summer. We have recently experienced two rather fruitless ministerial conferences in 2015 and 2017, and it would be extremely unfortunate if we leave this one without results. The WTO’s rulebook needs to be updated. In some areas, regulations have remained unchanged for over 20 years, when trade developments with digitalisation, global value chains and service certification have fundamentally changed over time. The gap between how we trade, and trade regulations is widening; this is not sustainable.

She stresses the importance of being aware of how the current trade conflicts in the world can affect us, such as the one between the United States and China.

– The EU and Sweden risk getting caught when the US and China are stepping their trade conflict up and down. We've seen it with the steel and aluminium tariffs that the US introduced. The smaller agreement now negotiated between the US and China, known as Phase 1, is a long way from the ambitious free trade agreements the EU negotiates. The EU should not go down the same path with these partial ‘deals’, but rather strive for serious and comprehensive agreements. These will simplify service trade, remove customs duties, encourage collaboration and confidence in each other's regulatory frameworks; this will have the greatest impact.

At an EU level, in addition to dealing with Brexit, we must try to influence the design of the new European Commission's initiatives such as industrial policy and the 'Green Deal'. These are important issues, but we must be vigilant so that policies are designed properly, and that Europe does not embark on a more protectionist direction.

All tendencies to protectionism must be curbed. This is something that should not only be emphasised when the EU designs new policies or negotiates new trade agreements; the reality is that it is always needed, in all contexts, concludes Stellinger.

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