Big business has not done enough to address citizens’ concerns – which is why populism and protectionism are increasing risks. European companies are now ready to offer leadership on investment in skills, climate change, diversity and inclusion, writes Carl-Henric Svanberg.
Carl-Henric Svanberg is the chairman of the European Round Table of Industrialists.
In the middle of my career, something extraordinary happened. I was in East Berlin when the Wall came down. It heralded the start of a process that brought freedom to the people of eastern Europe.
Like most citizens in Western Europe, I was inspired by what I saw – and hopeful for what these Europeans, and these nations, might achieve with their freedom. Since then, they have achieved much, thanks in large part to the fact that these nations have had their democracy and prosperity underpinned by membership of the European Union.
The values that inspired those citizens nearly 30 years ago – and the values that have been at Europe’s core since the end of the last World War – are no less important today. But it would be foolish to claim that these values; of freedom, tolerance, equality and openness, are as unquestioned as they were in the past.
Nationalist politics is on the rise inside Europe, to our west we see a US administration apparently less committed to free trade and cooperation, and to our east an increasingly assertive China.
To be clear, countries are entitled to pursue whatever policies they want, but it should give leaders in Europe pause to consider how best we respond to these challenges. To consider how we address the concerns of those citizens attracted to political movements that want to return to narrow ‘sovereign’ states, focused exclusively on the interests of their territory.
The answers these movements offer may be wrong – and I believe they are – but that should not excuse us from the task of finding better answers.
All this is happening at a time when the opportunities and challenges facing us are more global and interconnected than ever: climate change, mass movement of people, dealing with the effects of technological transformation such as artificial intelligence and digitisation. These represent real disruptions in the way we live and work, both positive and negative.
Large business needs to be part of this debate. Chairing a business organisation whose member companies collectively employ around five million people globally, and sustain many more jobs – the European Round Table of Industrialists – our members are a vital part of ensuring that Europe is strong, competitive and delivering the prosperity that citizens need.
But the truth is that over the past number of years we have not always been as loud as we should have been in standing up for the values that we share. Nor have we always been seen to deliver the kind of broad-based prosperity that underpinned post-war growth and partnership in Europe.
So what should we do about it? First, our members have signed up to a list of broad pledges: to grow investment in Europe, to champion diversity and inclusion, to embrace the digital revolution, to invest in our workforce’s skills, to contribute to tackling climate change, and to do all we can to support a level playing field for global trade.
Getting Europe’s largest companies to join together in these pledges is more than a symbolic gesture: these are meaningful commitments from companies who know they need to lead. This is a deeply important moment for citizens, and these pledges are not made lightly.
We also want to work with the new Members of the European Parliament and the new European Commission. We are encouraging them to take action on a series of policy priorities – ranging from strengthening the single market to delivering policies that support the energy transition towards the Paris climate goals, which we all agree is urgent.
To be clear, this is not simply a list of business-friendly policy asks. These are priorities that are critical for our continent, and it is beyond time that large business, European institutions and national Governments work together to deliver on them.
We should not be naïve about the stakes involved. Citizens’ trust in both democratic institutions and large business is not where it should be. To address that, we need to urgently tackle the big challenges of our time and we need to be competitive enough to create jobs and prosperity for all people.
Just like after 1945, and after 1989, we need to show citizens that working together in free societies – not closing ourselves off – is the best way of ensuring peace and prosperity