2019 Global Solutions Summit, Berlin

2019 Global Solutions Summit, Berlin

Keith Wilson, Senior International Trade Law Counsellor, Institute of International Trade 

Trade. Climate. Africa. Data.

Contributions at the third Global Solutions Summit (www.global-solutions.international) addressed the full spectrum of challenges in a period of major change – and a looming sense of crisis – in the international political, economic and social order. These were the four key priorities I took away from the 2019 Summit held in Berlin, Germany from 18-19 March 2019, in support of the Japanese Presidency of the G20/T20. The Think 20 (T20) will be held in May, leading up to the G20 itself in Osaka in June 2019.

Trade (read WTO reform) is the immediate priority – this year, now – highlighted by multiple speakers, to reverse the current spiral into protectionism and a zero sum clash of economic models. Climate is the existential priority – yesterday, today and tomorrow – championed by the young, on the streets, while Jurassic leaders fiddle as Rome burns. Africa is the development and human security priority, requiring massive investment in education, infrastructure, new partnerships and cooperation. And Data, well that is the mainframing priority – even as we address the other three – as handling digital technologies and the data issue properly, or not, will determine future prosperity, society, freedom and security.

With more than 1600 participants and 220 presenters over multiple parallel sessions, the outcomes may be sliced and diced in many and varied ways according to personal focus and perspective. The following also featured: restoring cooperative approaches to global problems; an urgent need for systemic transformation; transparency and fairness in taxation contributions; dealing with ocean plastic wastes; blending local and national diversity in shared learnings for sustainable and inclusive development; women’s education, STEM, and education at all levels and life-long; promoting innovation; and active involvement of younger generations. European perspectives were well represented, and African, American and Asian voices were also widely heard.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz, Federal Ministers Hubertus Heil and Katarina Barley, EU Commissioner and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, and Japanese Ambassador to Germany Takeshi Yagi delivered keynote addresses to the Summit, which included 90 Young Global Changers from 60 countries. The recent engagement of schoolchildren in worldwide climate activism and protest was welcomed at the highest levels – in providing at least some signs of hope for a future that young people have a direct interest in creating.

The Summit’s overall theme was “Recoupling” Social and Economic Progress: Paradigm change for a sustainable world order. A big theme for a big conference. Unpacking this requires more space. For as long as I can remember, academics have loved ‘paradigms’. Only, this time they may be right, not because they came up with it but because the conditions for major change are already upon us. Economic gains over the past 40 years have disconnected from social development at the local level, including in developed countries, and from political leaderships more broadly. The final session included a call for systemic change issues to be included as a permanent item on the G20 agenda.

Current generations are living in a unique transitional period in history – an “interregnum” – with the rise of China in particular, and new clashes of cultures and a battle for the rules. This has translated into a rise in populism and nationalist movements, protectionist trade, investment and migration policies, business uncertainty, State control, authoritarianism, and divergence between major political and economic models. Danger lies in the fact that this interregnum coincides with imminent and continuing existential and security threats (climate change, nuclear weapons), persistent inequalities in deriving the gains from global growth and trade and, perhaps most significantly, the once-in-500-year impacts flowing from the creation of the Internet. The last comparable event was the invention of the printing press. Whoever controls digital technologies can exert economic – and ultimately military – dominance.

Just as we cannot blame all our problems on populism, we cannot have globalisation and technology without social cohesion. The fear of others is human (Levi), but it cannot be a political philosophy because it ends up de-humanising. At heart, we must deal with the challenges of diversity.

How much of this eventually finds its way into the Japanese-led G20 outcomes remains to be seen. Realistically, I expect it will be incremental at best. This would be a huge lost opportunity for perceived “elites” – including the G20 club itself – to somehow re-connect and establish relevance with disillusioned communities and individuals. I hope I am wrong.

On trade, the world needs the WTO, to set minimum multilateral rules, to provide benchmarks for bilateral, plurilateral and regional progress, to resolve and mediate disputes effectively and avoid escalation into broader conflict, and to help to cope with the next phase of globalisation, including appropriate promotion of digital trade and technologies. Calls were made at the Summit to ‘flexibilise’ the judicial role in dispute settlement, break artificial chains and taboos eg expand plurilateral models rather than single packages applying to all WTO members, invent graduation systems for different purposes, and understand the financial costs of subsidies.

Chancellor Merkel emphasised the value of multilateralism, invoked the important role of the major players in achieving global responses to global crises, and the necessity of compromise, even if arduous.

On climate, children understand without any difficulty that a low-carbon future is the ONLY choice and are demanding the courage to tackle it. Cooperation is essential now on mechanisms and financing of sustainable transition plans to hydrogen, renewables and storage solutions, without exceptions for major players. The clock is running down.

Africa will be home to one quarter of the world’s population by 2050. European speakers saw a special responsibility to design the ‘Compact for Africa’ as a partnership to create better quality of life in African countries themselves. Fatoumata Ba, Founder and CEO of Janngo, was the Summit’s inspirational young woman entrepreneur, expanding opportunities through digital trading platforms engaging growing numbers of African SMEs.

On data and digital responsibilities, the warnings from leaders were not even thinly veiled (“if Facebook is a threat to citizens, we will regulate”!). However, risks of bad regulation are foreseen if the platform operators themselves do not fully engage and acknowledge the problems. It is crucial that it be done well. Innovators warned against over-regulation of technological breakthroughs, shown to stifle creativity and inadvertently increase poverty. Business leaders urged boldness in investment in transferable skills. Digital literacy and soft skills will enable humans to interact with, and differentiate from, machines in future. As part of the G20, Japan flagged the “Osaka Track” to deepen the data discussion, with governance under WTO rules, to promote effective free flows of data with trust.

The final Summit session noted with dark humour that, though the human species is naturally social and “morally load-bearing”, research shows that students become greedier and more selfish the more they study economics. Then they become the people who set policy! Dennis Snower’s “Recoupling” vision in the Summit’s Global Solutions Journal quotes from D & E Wilson (no relation): “Selfishness [of individuals] beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary”.

We need more plurilateral and regional groupings and approaches. Think ASEAN, Latin American, Pan-African, European, CPTPP, RCEP, and other coalitions and “building blocks”, to lead to global solutions.

Tagged in E-Commerce / Digital Trade, Investment, World Trade System, World Trade Organisation, Publications, Preferential Trade Agreements, Opinions