trade talks

Malmström Confronts the Maelstrom

A force for free trade? Source: Action Press
A force for free trade.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If the trade talks between the United States and the European Union fail, America will most likely turn away from Europe to focus on Asia. E.U. Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström is resolved to prevent that.

  • Facts


    • In Germany, 61 percent of respondents said they rejected Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in a recent poll.
    • Sweden’s Cecilia Malmström took over as E.U. commissioner for trade in November 2014.
    • The ninth round of TTIP negotiations will begin next week.
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Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s trade commissioner, recently received a concerned email from Germany.

A man from the Ruhr Valley city of Dortmund asked whether the night ban on the local airport would be lifted if the European Union concluded the proposed free trade agreement with the United States known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. “Some people out there are convinced that TTIP will bring a lot of misery,” Ms. Malmström said.

Ever since the pro-free market Swedish politician took over as E.U. trade commissioner, she has been struggling to convince opponents of the controversial agreement that it was in Europe’s best interest.

Consumer protection activists caution against a radical lowering of food quality standards, trade unions fear that workers’ rights will be undermined, local authorities worry that it will eat away at their political decision-making power.

TTIP, which British Prime Minister David Cameron once dubbed the “most important trade agreement of all time,” has ignited all sorts of fears in both Europe and America. This coming Saturday, people around the world are planning to protest against proposed the transatlantic treaty.

Ms. Malmström, who was previously E.U. commissioner for home affairs, is supposed to convince Europe’s citizens of the merits of the trade agreement – and at the same time presse the European Union’s case at negotiations with the United States. The ninth round of talks is set to start next week.

The 46-year-old knows that by the end of her term in 2019, her success or failure will be determined by TTIP, even though the outcome is not at all entirely in her hands.

She spends 80 percent of her time on the transatlantic treaty, Ms. Malmström estimated. “People want to be informed,” she said. “They need to feel that they are being listened to.”

Because Ms. Malmström insists on investor protection, she remains the target of much of the TTIP opponents’ anger

That’s what distinguishes her from her predecessor, Belgian politician Karel De Gucht. To him, the advantages of the free trade agreement were so obvious that they didn’t need any explanation.

Ms. Malmström on the other hand has all sorts of appointments lined up, meeting business people, activists, consumer protection agencies and, of course, politicians.

Just recently, she listened very patiently to concerns of local politicians who had gathered at the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. “Companies’ rights cannot trump citizens’ rights,” belted out Peter Kaiser from the regional authority in Carinthia, Austria.

For Markus Töns from Germany’s center-left Social Democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia, Ms. Malmström gave a very concrete example for his region. She said that Cologne-based company Alfred Schütte incurs between 10 and 15 percent higher costs when manufacturing a tooling machine for the U.S. because of differing standards in Europe and America. Mr. Töns was obviously pleased; she had understood his concerns and that of many companies in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The scene is typical for Ms. Malmström: She meticulously prepares her meetings, and that helps her connect even with her critics.

With talks like the one in the Committee of the Regions, the commissioner is fighting the many myths that have developed around TTIP. In Germany, the largest E.U. member state, a majority is against the transatlantic treaty. In Austria and Luxemburg, opposition is even stronger.


TTIP Supporters-01

In Sweden Ms. Malmström is considered authentic and modest. A longtime coworker described her as casual and unpretentious, saying that “she doesn’t seem like a typical politician.”

Ms. Malmström had never planned on a career in politics ,say those who know her well. Originally, she wanted to become a foreign correspondent, but she didn’t make it to Sweden’s only journalism school. So she studied political science instead, hoping to find an alternative route into journalism.

But what happened next is something that seems to have shaped her, yet she rarely talks about it. Ms. Malmström halted her studies in her hometown Gothenburg to work in a psychiatric ward. “I wanted to do something different,” is the casual explanation she gives for the unusual decision.

In a two-month course, she learned how to tend to people with Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia. “Some of them had never had a visitor,” she recalled. Ms. Malmström said she felt like those patients’ only remaining connection to life. The responsibility seems to still weigh on her when she talks about that time.

The commissioner said she has learned a lot during that time: “Patience, how to treat others humanely, how to work in a team.” It is her strength as a team player that landed the 46-year-old her current position.

Last summer, then Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt originally wanted to send another candidate as commissioner for trade to Brussels. But his junior coalition partner, the Liberals, insisted on Ms. Malmström. The German government, that would have liked to see its own man, Günther Oettinger,  in the job, and the French government in the end accepted Ms. Malmström because they saw her as a mediator.

In her former position as commissioner for home affairs, Ms. Malmström had already built a reputation as someone unafraid to compromise. But critics say that she often acted too cautiously under José Manuel Barroso. They claim she always sought his support first, even though she had the mandate to act on her own. “It looked like a teacher and his pet,” an insider said. For her critics that means Ms. Malmström made only few mistakes, but never made full use of her potential.

A particularly harrowing time came when she was commissioner for home affairs. Some 300 refugees drowned off the shore of the Italian island Lampedusa and she and Mr. Barroso attended the hastily set up commemoration. Ms. Malmström said she still sees the white coffins, ten of them for children, before her eyes: “The image will stay with me as long as I live.”

Washington is expecting more from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and other Asian countries

It was a moment demonstrating Europe’s powerlessness – which was especially bitter for Ms. Malmström, the woman who had entered European politics because she believes in the European Union.

When Sweden held its referendum on its E.U. ascension, Ms. Malmström was active in the pro-Europe camp. In 1999, she was elected to the European Parliament in her second attempt, in 2006 she joined the Swedish government as minister for European affairs, in 2010 she became commissioner in Brussels.

Europe has shaped Ms. Malmström since she was a child. At nine years old, she moved to Germain-en-Laye near Paris, where her father worked for a Swedish company. As a young adult, she spent 10 months working in Barcelona, and two summers with a German firm as a student.

The commissioner doesn’t like talking about her private life. Her husband and her 12-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, moved to Brussels five years ago, that much is known. Ms. Malmström once told a Swedish newspaper that she won her husband’s heart with her sense of humor.

Some in Brussel wonder whether she is tough enough for her job. She has taken a firm stance on investor protection, one of the most controversial parts of the planned TTIP agreement – and one that Commission President Mr. Juncker might like to drop, much to the displeasure of business leaders.

Because Ms. Malmström insists on investor protection, she remains the target of much of the TTIP opponents’ anger. She seems to be surprised that the topic, which is known under the abbreviation ISDS, has developed something of a life of its own. She recently said “there are thousands of people out there spending their days hating ISDS.”

In response to criticism, Ms. Malmström is planning to present adjustments to the investor protection section. She also keeps pointing out that it was German companies in particular that have benefited from ISDS in the past.

Video: Ms. Malmström promised more transparency in TTIP negotiations as commissioner-designate.

But she does concede that it was a mistake to keep the negotiation mandate the E.U. governments had agreed upon for TTIP secret. “At the time, the suspicion arose that there was something fishy,” she said. Ms. Malmström added that today she’s a bit amused by how many of those complaining about opacity have never read the now public mandate, which she called a “very boring document.”

Of course, it wasn’t her decision to keep the paper secret for so long. Member states had refused to publish it.

It’s one of the commissioner’s toughest tasks to rally real support from E.U. governments. Most of them are hardly interested in TTIP. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, originally one of the driving forces behind the treaty, has recently renewed her commitment to the project in Brussels. But the crises in Greece and Ukraine are far more urgent at the moment, relegating TTIP to the bottom of the political agenda.

Ms. Malmström feels that the E.U. member states are leaving her to fend for TTIP on her own. “If you have a dialogue, you can correct the biggest misunderstandings. But I cannot do this alone,” she said, adding “member states need to engage and need to become more active.”

But her most difficult challenge probably lies with the United States. The American government is negotiating with the Europeans, but had already made it clear to her predecessor Mr. De Gucht that it sees Europe in the role of the supplicant.

Washington is expecting much more from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and other Asian countries. “The U.S. is not dependent on TTIP,” said trade expert Hosuk Lee-Makiyama of the Brussels-based think tank the European Center for International Political Economy.

That’s why in the end it might only be of limited use that Ms. Malmström is getting along much better with U.S. chief negotiator Michael Froman than her predecessor used to. If the Americans are courting aspiring Asian nations more than aging Europe, there’s hardly anything Ms. Malmström can do about that. She has a thankless job. And not just because of the emails from Germany.


This article originally appeared in weekly business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author:

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