It’s clear for anyone who has watched, read or listened to the end-of-year roundups these past few weeks. Apart from some stray references to the ‘Zwarte Piet’ debate, November and December alone offered a year’s worth of news updates about the heavy weather that international collaboration finds itself in. Theresa May’s twists and turns in the Brexit saga. The verbal flak spraying across the Pacific between China and the US. Or the spats at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Protectionist rhetoric

To outsiders, it may feel as if the entire edifice could cave in at any moment. Still, Professor of European Union Law Fabian Amtenbrink wouldn’t go as far as that. “I’d say that international collaboration has mainly become more complex – it definitely hasn’t become impossible. We see more and more new faces on the scene – China for instance. And they all aim to play a leading role on the world stage. Populism and nationalism are also on the rise.”

It’s not so much a bomb that is about to explode as a system that’s crackling with high voltage. According to Amtenbrink, this development started a number of years ago. “You can see a swell of populism around the world. It’s fed by people’s resentment of economic liberalism, multiculturalism and, above all, internationalism.” The latter concept in particular is like a red rag to a bull in many countries. And politicians aren’t afraid to tap into this mood. “Internationalism is seen as a movement of the political elite. Populists are putting increasing emphasis on national sovereignty. This goes in tandem with protectionist rhetoric.”


Populism translated into policy

And in 2018, these sentiments entered international politics – with a vengeance. “Populist emotions are translated into concrete policies. Trump is a case in point. Withdrawing from negotiations about a Trans-Atlantic trade agreement, for example. Or putting the NAFTA trade bloc between Canada, Mexico and the US up for renegotiation. Or the way he has undermined the World Trade Organization by unilaterally imposing tariffs, in contravention of WTO rules – and even talking of a US withdrawal.”

‘Ultimately, these leaders also understand that returning to a world of nation states would never work in the long term.’

Federica Violi, Assistant Professor of International and European Union Law

Federica Violi, Assistant Professor of International and European Union Law, sees this undermining of the WTO as one of the key developments of the past year. “In the 1990s, there was a targeted effort to strengthen international economic integration. This was seen as the best way to increase prosperity. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of 1994 and the founding of the WTO in 1995, for example, stepped up economic integration far beyond a mere lowering of tariffs. This had far-reaching consequences for the entire system. It has severely limited individual states’ options to safeguard their scope for domestic regulation and decision-making. In return, they were promised increased prosperity across the board, which would also trickle down to national economies.”

For a long time, this gambit seemed to pay off. But after a few years of grumbling behind the stage, it seems that in 2018, the organisation is actually on its last legs. Trump already attacked the WTO head-on back in August. And other countries have also voiced their dissatisfaction with existing arrangements. “Take India and Brazil, for example: both countries have also called for new trade agreements within the WTO,” says Violi. “In the view of government leaders, systems like the WTO no longer effectively serve their national interests. Although the big question is: what could actually be a viable alternative? Ultimately, these leaders also understand that returning to a world of nation states would never work in the long term.”

Fresh thought

This dilemma is also brought up by Professor of Inclusive Global Law and Governance Alessandra Arcuri. “There are a number of major challenges that can only be solved through international collaboration.” She lists a few: “Economic inequalities and environmental pollutions, as well as climate change. These are huge issues that countries could never resolve on their own. That’s why we need to give fresh thought to how we could use international collaboration to resolve major global problems. By adapting existing trade and investment agreements, for instance. These agreements would need to include stricter rules that protect the environment, and new regulations that can prevent tax evasion.”

The picture painted by the news surveys may not be full of pensive government leaders, but Amtenbrink would like to put things in perspective: “The remarkable thing is that even the biggest populists, including Trump, realise that occasionally it’s in their interest to play along. International collaboration is too important; mutual ties have become far too strong over the past few years. My feeling is that with people like Trump, it’s about holding a big speech rather than relying on strategic diplomacy. Intimidation is increasingly becoming a negotiation strategy in its own right.” Or, as Arcuri puts it: “Trump’s talk of protecting the American public sounds great, but it’s rather simplistic. While it may work to get people riled up, there are better ways to tackle domestic inequality, of course. In this context, it’s important to note that according to experts, economic inequality in the US first took off in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, who set up a more regressive tax regime.”

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

When push comes to shove

One thing the three academics all agree on is that despite all the complaining, tampering and threats like Brexit, international collaboration is here to stay. “Everyone has become far too dependent on each other,” says Violi. “The potential advantages of working together are simply too great. For everyone. We couldn’t go back to the situation before the Second World War if we wanted to.”

“Of course, Brexit is a prime example of international collaboration becoming harder than it used to be – particularly when you’re dealing with political integration,” says Amtenbrink. “But we would be grossly over-simplifying things to simply attribute the wish of a share of the British people to leave the EU to populist influences and a rejection of anything that reeks of internationalism. Despite Brexit, the UK was, is and will most likely remain a major champion of international trade. Of course, the big irony is that once Brexit is fact, the British will need to pay more attention than ever to international collaboration, to safeguard their country’s economic future. International collaboration will remain of vital importance to countries in the 21st century – although how they go about it is clearly changing.”

As far as our academics are concerned, this is the conclusion that people at home should reach as they put a fresh batch of oliebollen in the fryer. Sure, various international systems seem to be past their sell-by date. But we should take all the braggadocio reported in the media this past year with a grain of salt. “A lot of people were talking big, including in the run-up to the G20,” says Amtenbrink. “But when push comes to shove, America has no decent alternatives either. That’s another trend that has continued over the past year. It started in 2017, but the mechanism has only become stronger. Sometimes relations are very cool, other times very close. But at the end of the day, you still have international collaboration in some form or other. That’s the real trend of 2018.”


part of special

This was 2018

2018 is (almost) over and therefore we are looking at the past year in review.