On April 27, 2023, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan delivered a lecture at the Brookings Institution on American economic policy in which he promoted a ‘new Washington consensus’. His speech resonated loudly within EU member states and its institutions. What he said fits very well in the current debate in Brussels on economic and trade policy – a debate which divides policy makers even inside the European Commission in Brussels.
The need for a ‘new’ consensus
Jake Sullivan’s presentation, indeed, reinforces the views of those in Europe who feel there is a need for some distance from globalization, free trade and an economic system based solely on liberalism, competition rules and the law of the market. This system was often presented as ‘the Washington consensus’; this term was first coined by a British economist in 1989 to describe a world of free markets, with the United States as guarantor and relying mainly on the World Bank and the IMF. This ‘consensus’ developed in Washington during the Clinton administration and extended to the other side of the Atlantic – until the turn of the new century.
But now, times have changed: the US is no longer hegemonic; the world has fractured; western values are openly challenged by China and others in the ‘global south’ – and the Trump administration renounced major multinational treaties like TTIP and the TPP. Sullivan describes superbly the reasons why a ‘new’ consensus is needed: ‘a financial crisis that shook the middle class, a pandemic which exposed the fragility of our supply chains, a changing climate that threatens lives and livelihoods, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia which underscores the risks of overdependence’ – and, on top of that, a China which continues to subsidize the growth of its industry and ‘becoming a leader in critical technologies which will define the future’.
This diagnosis, and what Sullivan suggests, match perfectly the thinking by those in Europe who promote an EU ‘industrial policy’ – a novelty for the European Union. Clearly, liberalism and free trade retain strong supporters in European countries and in the EU Commission. Recently the EU ratified an agreement with Chile, concluded a treaty with New Zealand, and persists in completing the ratification of agreements with the Mercosur and Mexico. But even the Commission has to admit that the time of TTIP and other comprehensive trade agreements has passed and that those who want to relax state aid rules and encourage subsidies to the industry are dominating the scene.