Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the invitation to join you here today. Trade is in some ways a sensitive subject at the moment, therefore opportunities like this one - where we come together to take stock of the good and the bad and have a measured, fact-based discussion - are welcome.
Let me start off by making it very clear, and this will come as no surprise to you, that I am an unapologetic believer in the power of free, fair and rules-based trade as a force for good in the world.
My background was certainly a factor in this. Ireland is a country with a small, open economy, where international trade is not viewed as a choice but as a necessity.
I grew up on a small farm in a region of Ireland where 9 out of every 10 litres of milk was exported. As a result, most farming families in the area had a decent functional understanding of global trade, the potential as well as the pitfalls.
This heritage has certainly informed and enriched my work as Agriculture Commissioner. I have seen with my own eyes the immense positive impact that comes with building trade relationships with our global partners. There is an economic dividend, of course, but there is also a social and cultural dividend that benefits us all.
I propose to use the example of trade in agri-food products as the basis for my intervention today.
I believe this is a powerful vehicle to explain in practical terms why trade is good, and why - when it is done correctly – trade can lead to stronger bonds of trust and mutual understanding with our global partners. A rising tide really does lift all boats.
Since being appointed in 2014, I have conducted economic diplomacy on behalf of the EU around the globe, in places like China, Japan, Mexico, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia, Canada, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
On many of these missions, I was accompanied by a business delegation of executives from EU agri-food companies. These are skilled professionals, who make the most of these golden opportunities to build business relationships and learn about trading realities in new markets.
And our efforts are bearing fruit. The EU has recently signed or improved deals with Japan, Singapore, Mexico, South Korea, Vietnam, and Canada; we are making steady progress with others like Mercosur and Indonesia; and we are starting new ones with places like New Zealand and Australia.
In all of these deals, the agri-trade dimension is significant. We will seek to gain new market share of for our world-beating agri-food products while defending our sensitive sectors.
These deals are more than just economic agreements; they are strategic alliances for open trade. It is quite clear that the buying and selling of agri-food products can be a tool to spread European values around the world. And let's face it: these values are needed more than ever before.
The cumulative impact of our trade alliances is to burnish the EU's reputation as the global standard-bearer for free, fair and rules-based trade. We have occupied the space vacated by others and we are now viewed as the go-to partner for trade. The word is out there: Europe is open for business.
And we have excellent prospects to build on this great track record. Consumer trends worldwide strongly tend towards a willingness to pay a premium for quality, traceability and sustainability.
The global population will increase by two billion in the next 30 years.
Therefore global demand for high-quality, high-value, highly nutritious products will grow in tandem with the ever-increasing global middle class. Our studies indicate that the income of middle class consumers will grow, and an additional 150 million people per year will achieve this status. And all indications are that they will demand the highest quality products to feed their families.
Consumption of dairy products, to give just one example, is expected to increase at an annual rate of 1.8 per cent, with the highest growth expected in Asian countries.
Anti-trade Rhetoric in the EU
And yet when I travel around Europe, I sometimes have the sense that people have the opposite impression. In some areas, including the rural areas I frequently visit, there is often a persistent suspicion of trade.
This is partly historical: there has been a strong anti-trade rhetoric in many quarters for many years, based on the premise that trade does not have a clear tangible benefit in the lives of our citizens, and in fact it may do the opposite, contributing to factories closing, unfair competition for our SMEs, and so on.
This is an easy drum for populists to beat, even if facts and evidence are in short supply.
I believe we need to do more to turn that narrative around. We need to explain in a positive manner the correlation between the macro and the micro to our citizens. This is how we can robustly defend trade while also rebutting populist misinformation.
Here is a macro fact: international trade has helped the EU move from a negative agri-trade position to a €19 billion surplus in a few short years.
That is an impressive statistic, but in and of itself it has little relevance to a rural European citizen.
Now let's try to reinforce the positives of this fact at the micro level:
We know that every €1 billion in agri-food exports supports over 20,000 jobs, many of them in our rural areas.
So if we tell the story of a small vineyard owner in France or a feta producer in Greece who is making more money to support his family because of international trade, I think that will resonate far more with a rural citizen than an impressive statistic.
We need to start telling these positive stories, and telling them loud.
It is also fair and accurate to say that we have responded to public concerns and changed the way we do things, for the better.
My colleague, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, explained this very well on her recent mission to Washington DC.
She noted that at the beginning of this Commission, there were very often anti-trade demonstrations outside our offices.
Our solution to this challenge came in three parts:
First, we took the principled position of becoming a highly transparent trade negotiator. We now publish all new trade and investment negotiation text proposals and negotiation round reports. We also make reader-friendly materials to explain our deals to the public. And other countries are following our example.
Second, we became more inclusive by opening new lines of dialogue with stakeholders.
And third, we tried to spread the benefits of globalisation more widely by including provisions in trade agreements – like special attention for SMEs.
Another point that in my view cannot be repeated enough is the huge value added of the EU speaking with one voice on the global stage.
EU membership is the smartest and most effective way for small countries like the one I know best, Ireland, to maximise their influence and success in the world.
Being part of the EU gives Member States a strength and influence they could never achieve on their own, because as I have been saying non-stop for the past 3 years - in trade, size matters.
Defending the Multilateral Order
Meanwhile, Commissioner Malmstrom and I, and indeed all our colleagues, will continue to make a strong and eloquent case for global trade, why it matters, and why the EU will not flinch in our defence of the international order
Our great strength is our market power, and we must use that strength wisely and well. Size matters in trade. The EU is a market of 500 million consumers.
Our global clout and our unyielding commitment to high standards allow us to project a positive influence in other policy areas.
Take for example the General Data Protection Regulation: if you want to do business with the EU and access our markets, you must meet our standards. As a result, we increasingly see the GDPR privacy model being adopted and adapted worldwide.
So when we say that we are prepared to take action through trade –this means something.
In my own trade area of agri-food, every time we strike a trade deal with a new global partner, we push for higher animal welfare and environmental standards. Our partners must raise their standards to our level, not the other way around.
Therefore, our EU standards are not compromised in any of our third country negotiations.
But we always have to remember that trade only works when the right support structures are in place.
The EU continues to be the global standard-bearer for free, fair, rules-based trade.
We will not flinch in our defence of the multilateral order, unlike some of our global partners who seem to think that they can only pick out the parts they like best, a bit like someone picking all the purple Skittles out of the packet.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude by summarising my own point of view:
I firmly believe trade conducted in an intelligent, sustainable way can benefit our economy and our society.
Recent agreements such as the trade deal between the EU and Japan show our trade profile in a very positive light.
This is the biggest trade agreement the EU has ever negotiated. It covers more than a quarter of the world's GDP and 630 million people.
It opens up trade for services, and tears down tariffs around the highly protected Japanese market.
And of course, Japan is more than just a trade partner. They share our values too – it is a strategic alliance to stand up for open trade.
Agreements such as this one highlight our position as a global leader and standard-setter in shaping international trade and its rules, and in so doing, they provide a concrete example of how we can harness globalisation to benefit our citizens.
The challenge now is to build on this foundation and maintain our robust defence of the international order, while doing more to show our citizens that trade works for them. Thank you.