With a career spanning over two decades at the European Parliament, the European Council and at the European Commission, former Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström was recently nominated by her country Sweden for the position of OECD Secretary General. We met virtually with Cecilia Malmström as a second wave threatens Europe to discuss the road out of the COVID-19 crisis, the future of European cooperation and her view on what is happening with multilateralism.
This interview was originally published in the ALDE Party Liberal Bulletin in November 2020.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Europe’s economies to their limits. In your view, how can the European Union and its member states ensure as swift and resilient an economic recovery as possible?
The economic bounce-back will hardly be swift, it will take time. Especially with the second wave of COVID-19 becoming a reality and not just a likelihood, many cities and countries in Europe have started to close down again and introduce new lockdowns. This is done to protect the health of the people, which is the utmost priority of course, but it will also have economic consequences which cannot be underestimated. The slow recovery that we witnessed this summer is not likely to continue. Having said that, while we cannot make it swift, we should do our best to ensure as resilient an economic recovery as possible. My hope is that the European Council and the European Parliament are soon able to agree on a budget to make this possible.
And how do you see the future of European cooperation at this challenging and exceptional time?
There are many things on the todo list. First, we need to make sure that we find a way to handle this ongoing pandemic: we need to save lives, reduce the number of infections, and focus on discover- ing a vaccine. But the long-term need for economic recovery cannot be ignored and on this, I think the world is watching what the EU will do. In the five-day European Council Summit back in July reaching an agreement was difficult but we did it. Newspapers in countries like the US, Australia and Norway were full of hope, saying that Europe finally “got it right”. It is this hope we need to build on, while ensuring we continue to help each other and show solidarity.
The effect of this pandemic on democracy is also something that we need to deal with. At the heart of the EU we now have countries that are no longer fully democratic. We need to address this issue and I hope that the European Parliament and the Council will find a way to find an answer to the key question related to respecting the EU’s core values and financing. And we need to act quickly or otherwise we will lose our global credibility. Between two other powerful global actors – China and the US – the EU needs to be able to step up to the challenge and make strategic decisions related to foreign policy, including taking decisions by majority vote when it comes to topics related to human rights violations and sanctions. This is not easy and it will take time, but it must be done.
With the changing geopolitical landscape, protectionism seems to be on the rise. How can Europe fight back and maintain a multilateral approach?
This is so important, as multilateral- ism overall was on a weak standing already before the pandemic, and it seems like many international organisations have only weakened further during this challenging time: WTO is in a crisis, WHO has been struggling, we have not really heard from G7 or G20, or from the UN for that matter. But perhaps this exceptional time is an opportunity to push for new heights when it comes to working together. With the crisis impacting every country around the world, only by cooperating and sharing knowledge and best practices can we ensure that we are better prepared for the next time something like this happens. International organisations play a key role in this, and so do international corporations – we have seen this for example with the vaccine development, with researchers from all over the world sharing their results and discoveries. Now is not the time for protectionism but time to strengthen what works and repair what does not.
You are running for the position of OECD Secretary General. What would be your key priorities in this role?
The first thing to do is to listen and find out what each country thinks the priorities are and how they see the future. The next thing is to outline what the OECD can do in the short and long term. Short-term needs include making evidence-based policy proposals and assisting member states in economic re- covery that is green, innovative, and inclusive. In the long-term, we should focus on building resilient economies that cover key areas such as digitalisation. The OECD has a huge competence in this area and perhaps should put it more in the centre of some oth- er key topics. There is also room to develop organisational transparency and inclusiveness. It is very hard to say what will happen from now until early next year, but it has been a very interesting and re- warding journey, no matter what the outcome will be.
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