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Cecilia Malmström

EU Trade Commissioner
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September 27, 2019, 15 min read

Interview by Sarah Wagner

This week, Sarah is interviewing Cecilia Malmström, a Swedish politician who has served as European Commissioner for Trade since 2014.

In her function as Trade Commissioner, she is representing the EU in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other international trade fora and negotiates bilateral trade agreements between the EU and third countries.

In our conversation, we talk about the challenges she has been facing as Commissioner, what role the EU should play in today’s changing world and how we can empower women through international trade. 

Commissioner Malmström, thank you for being with Here She Is to discuss the role of women in trade.

It is my pleasure.


Before speaking about women and trade, I would like to ask you a few lightning questions to get to know you a little bit better. 

Do you tend to live in the present in the past or in the future in the present?

In the present.


What do you miss about your childhood?

I had a very good childhood. I think about it as happy.


Do you have any superstitions? No, not really.


And what's on your bucket list for this year?

A longer vacation. Not a vacation like on a beach but some time off just for myself when there will be nothing written in my calendar when I can wake up and say “What shall I do today? Lunch with a friend?”.


Which is very understandable because you have been the EU Commissioner for trade since 2014.

Yes, and I've been here in Brussels for 20 years more or less.


Looking back, what is something that you would have liked to know when you took on the role of Trade Commissioner?

At that time, I worked as Commissioner for Home Affairs. I was very deep into migration, fight against terrorism and trafficking. When I started to look at trade I was not really conscious of how much of a public concern this just began to be. I mean, the first weeks of my mandate we had demonstrations every day. I did not really realize that it was such a hot topic at that time.

You seem to have managed well, though, because when we look at the numbers, we can see that the European Commission has negotiated and concluded more trade agreements than in any comparable period.

Yes, we did and we did not only that but we also changed the paradigm on how we negotiate because of the fact that there were so many people demonstrating and it was such a hot topic. Everybody was really critical about TTIP - you will remember that from your own country Germany. Some other countries forced us to think about how we do these trade negotiations because people obviously wanted to be involved. We tried to involve people, we invited them in, we listened to them, we set up permanent advisory groups, we made sure that we increased transparency. We have now 6000 documents online and we publish basically everything we do on trade. I traveled all around the European Union. We have done citizen dialogues, hundreds of meetings, I visited 40 national parliaments on different levels in order to tell people that if they have questions I'll be happy to answer them. There's nothing secret or evil about trade.


So, a successful negotiation process is all about transparency?

Transparency is important in order to get the trust of the stakeholders and that is everything from business to environmental organizations to ordinary citizens. So that transparency is important. When you negotiate with others, maybe they don't immediately appreciate that you publish everything but that depends on who you negotiated with.


I think it's very important that you set up the goals, you're very clear on your red lines, you don't change in the meantime and you try to build confidence. Even if you disagree on certain issues, you must try to build a confidential partnership with the one who you negotiate with.

How do you best influence people and how do you find a common denominator?

The common denominator is that we want to get a trade agreement done. That's why we are in the room. You have to identify what are their real must-haves and their absolute red lines and be very clear about your owns and from there you can move forward. Of course, a trade negotiation is something that takes years and I come in at these critical junctures at the end. But the sort of preparatory work and the first chapters and the more technical work is done by a very large and competent team from my side.


You have just said the world and trade have changed. How can Europeans ensure that they have greater and sustainable influence in today's world?

That's a tricky question because things are changing but I think citizens want to have influence. First, of course, we must try as policymakers, as politicians, to be very honest and transparent with them, tell them what we do. Not everybody wants to follow but if they want to follow the trade negotiations when we say “Australia”, they should know how to do that.

They can click in, they can follow, they can say “OK here I know”. Or they can trust that journalists like you will follow and if there's anything, they would write about this. That's building trust with everyday citizens.


Otherwise, we must make sure that, as Europeans, we stand up in these times. And that goes for trade but it also goes for all kinds of international relations in the global world. It is important that we stand up for multilateralism, for international rules, for the world global order, which we built together with the Americans after the Second World War. We had NATO, we had IMF, we had World Bank, we had a lot of international conventions and we had GATT, which became WTO. We had all these different rule-based cooperations where we said we sit around a table and we try to solve it in a civilized matter and today all that is shaking.


Would you say that reconstructing this system has been the biggest challenge you have faced over the past years?

Yes, and we haven't reconstructed it yet. We're still working on this because, of course, Europe stands very firm in sticking to multilateral rules and games. And we have lots of allies and we are consolidating these alliances with our trade agreements as well. But China is going its own way and the US has clearly expressed that this administration does not really favor the multilateral way. They do it their own way: The WTO for instance and everything from the Iran agreement to the disarmament agreement is under threat. This also goes for international organizations, where the US stepped down on their own, such as the Paris agreement. Particularly in light of the ongoing climate week in the whole world and especially in the United Nations, with the withdrawal of a big power like the United States from the Paris agreement, we're in trouble.

Let me move on to the topic of women and trade. You're organizing the conference “Trade For Her” on 30 September in Brussels. Why do we need such a conference?

You could, of course, ask that but it is one way - not the only one - to highlight this topic. What we found and what I've found when I traveled around and talked to a lot of people is that we must make sure that trade benefits everybody. My first policy document was “Trade for All”. Women do not benefit from global trade as much as men do. There are gaps there. In Europe, we see that around 36 million jobs are related to exports outside the European Union but only 15 million of them are filled by women. And yet we know the number could be higher. In many ways, we hear anecdotal evidence that women can't engage in the same way they would like to due to various obstacles. 

If we look at the global world, in some countries, women cannot even open a bank account or they can't start a company or drive a car. Then it's hard to do that. These are extreme versions, of course. But even in many other countries, there are bigger obstacles for women. Yet when women do engage in trade you can see that the benefits trickle down to the whole community because women invest in their children, in their families, in education. So, it's a way of fighting poverty.

There is a gap between what women would like to do and how the world would improve economically. If women contributed to the global economy we would be better off to a large extent. Of course, it a moral thing as well.


And what are the reasons for this low number of women engaging in trade?

That is what we're trying to do find out. As said, in some countries, it is related to existing law. Also, there seems to be discrimination when it comes to getting access to loans and getting access to these trade networks. In some countries, it's hard to combine your job if you don't have the childcare provisions you need. There also seems to be discrimination when it comes to public procurement contracts because if you anonymize the tender, so the one who asks for public procurement, then women get much more.

There are studies that prove women choose their occupation according to the impact they can make. What impact could women make in trade?

If they have an idea or a product or a service that they want to sell or they will offer that to people who want to buy it. So that is an impact but as I said, they also make a bigger impact because women invest their money in a broader way in the broader community. It's a way of fighting poverty and it's a way of promoting development.

In Europe, we have the best-educated housewives in the world. If you want to stay and it’s your choice, fine. But if you don't want to but you feel that there are obstacles that hinder you from entering into trade or any other business we should, as policymakers, be responsible for removing them so that women can fulfill their dreams if they want to. There was one World Bank study showing that if women engaged in the global economy as much as men do the global GDP would increase by 28 trillion dollars. So, it's an economic way as well.


Apart from the conference, what else is the EU doing to promote gender equality in trade?

This conference is of course not only symbolic. It is a follow up from a conference two years ago where we asked and we listened. There was a need for more data because everybody can tell a story. And that's fine and interesting. But you need to have more systemic data in order to do that. At this conference, much more data will be presented from UNCTAD, the OECD and a study we asked the International Trade Centre to present. From that, we can give some advice but we have also started to put our gender glasses on and forced my people at DG Trade to pay attention to that aspect. For instance, we are working with individual countries - because they need to be the partner country to agree - to have chapters or sections on women and trade. We have that with Chile and we'll have that with New Zealand. The goal is to identify how we can work together to make sure that this beautiful trade agreement once it is done also benefits women.


We are working with a lot of other countries in the world because two years ago at the big ministerial in Buenos Aires 120 countries signed up, committing ourselves to try to do things we could report to each other at the next ministerial in June 2020. We have been promoting women in e-commerce, for instance, we've had some workshops and trainings in Geneva with other WTO members but also in other parts of the world. We are summoning these studies as well and we have enough evidence to show that women are mainly engaged in small and medium-sized companies.


We have put a lot of focus on that in our trade negotiations to facilitate for small and medium-sized companies because that will indirectly also benefit the women. In the Japanese agreement that came into force in February, we have a specific chapter where we say that together we will facilitate for women, set up contact points, specified web pages. And we have that in other trade agreements we have been negotiating. We have also agreed with Canada - with whom we have an old agreement without a specific chapter on women - to work on the topic.

And how to make sure these commitments are also implemented?

We have regular evaluations and we talk and report to each other. Because they are not legal obligations as such but we take stock of each other’s work and compare ideas. It’s more like a dynamic sharing of ideas, particularly as it is quite unchartered water. We still need to find the ways that work best, how we can best reach out to women, how we can make sure that their experience and their knowledge is taken into account in the best possible way. And the conference brings together people from all over the world and will hopefully give us some new ideas on how to work on this. Then I hope, of course, that the new Commissioner will continue to work in this direction and so we can follow it up again.

Commissioner, you are from Sweden, a country that is very advanced with regard to gender equality. What do you think could the European Union or even the world learn from your home country?

Childcare policy, which allows also men to be at home. I think if men are given the opportunity to stay at home with their children when they are very small they become better parents. It becomes natural that both mother and father ask the employer to take a month off because of having a baby. That is probably the most important thing you can do to make sure that both parents stay home if they want to. And there's also economic compensation to take parental leave when children are small. That also creates a bigger tolerance: If a male boss said he would take time off because of having a baby, others will say “OK if he can I can do it as well”. But it's still a long way to go and we still have challenges and we are the only country in the Nordics that never had a female prime minister.

Indeed, there is still a lot to do. What call to action or recommendation would you have to all man and woman listening?

You should stand up and fight for your rights. And that goes for men as well. We did a lot of women talks all over the world. I've been part of many, I still promote a lot of others, I try to support younger women. But we must make sure that we also encourage them to engage with progressive men because there are lots of men. Many men have helped me in my career. Selfishly, in a way where I wouldn't be where I am today without a lot of really good men who have seen my potential and who pushed me and would say “yes you can”. So we need to work with all progressive forces in order to do it. Female networks are great. It's a great source of inspiration and sometimes comfort. But you also need to make sure to identify good men who can help you and who can promote you.

About Her

Cecilia Malmström has served as European Commissioner for Trade since 2014, having previously served as European Commissioner for Home Affairs from 2010 to 2014. In her current position, she represents the EU in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other international trade fora.

Cecilia Malmström is responsible for negotiating bilateral trade agreements with key countries, including recently concluded agreements with Canada, Japan, Mexico, and the four Mercosur countries, and for ongoing negotiations with, for example, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.

Prior to her appointment as Commissioner, she served as Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2006, and as Swedish Minister for European Union Affairs 2006–2010. She is a member of the Liberal People’s Party, which is represented by the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.

Cecilia Malmström holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Department of Political Science of Göteborg University.

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