Davos may be all about Donald Trump’s America First speech on Friday, but Europe’s key figures reminded World Economic Forum delegates there is another way.
The leaders of Germany, France and Italy used separate appearances in the Swiss resort on Wednesday to beat the drum for free trade, globalization and more joint policy making in Europe.
“When we see that things aren’t equitable, we look for multilateral solutions rather than unilateral ones that simply promote isolation and protectionism,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On a day when discussion was dominated by politics, Merkel was joined by French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who together represent continental Europe’s three biggest economies. Each rallied behind European ideals and outlined the reasons they oppose the U.S. president’s agenda.
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Gentiloni said that Trump’s protectionist push threatens global growth, and urged Europe to fill any hole left by American businesses. After Trump slapped tariffs on solar panels and washing machines, Gentiloni said in a Bloomberg Television interview there is an opportunity for “the Italians, the Germans, the French and the Europeans as a whole to play a role.” Europe, he added, “is ready to fill this gap.”
All leaders are allowed to protect their own workers, the Italian premier said. “But there is a limit and the limit is defending our free trade, defending the model which has brought us to this kind of growth,” he said.
The leaders all condemned political parties in Europe that exploit public fears over the kind of disruptive change that costs jobs.
Each has good reason to deplore populism: Macron’s National Front opponent, Marine Le Pen, took a third of the vote in last year’s presidential election; Merkel is struggling to form a government in part because the far right’s surge has upset coalition building; and Gentiloni is squeezed between the populist Five Star Movement and a center-right coalition ahead of Italian elections on March 4.
But they all acknowledged the need to address the root concerns that had fed populism, including the wave of migration into Europe and an inability to reduce inequality.
“That’s our challenge,” Macron said in an hour-long speech delivered in English and French. There are “a lot of fears, lack of understanding about this globalization” that have prompted voters to start questioning their leaders, he said.
Macron told delegates that it was their task to help rein in the excesses of global capitalism and called on executives and officials to avoid a “race to the bottom” on taxes and trade standards. Instead, he urged them to focus on the common good, social cohesion, health, education, climate and the fight against inequalities.
Merkel cited the lessons of 20th-century economic conflicts and war to make the case that nationalism and protectionism aren’t the answer.
“We have to advocate for our multilateral approach,” she said. “You need to have the patience to find multilateral solutions and not slip into the apparently easier solution of pursuing national interests. Once you have a national response, at some point you lose the strand of dialogue.”