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Fighting fear with factfulness – and engagement

Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, delivered the keynote speech at Bruegel's Annual Dinner 2018, held on 3 September 2018.

By: Date: September 3, 2018 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

I want to thank Bruegel very warmly. Not only for inviting me to be with you this evening. But also for everything you do, to come up with new ideas to solve Europe’s problems. And for the way that – like your namesake, the elder Pieter Bruegel – you always keep people at the centre of your work.

An improving world

But I have an admission to make. When I think about Bruegel, the work you produce is not the first thing that comes to mind. What I think of instead is Pieter Bruegel’s famous picture of a Flemish peasant wedding in full swing. The drink is flowing, the talk is growing louder, the dishes of food are being handed around; and in the foreground, a small child is licking her fingers with delight. It looks fun. Rather like this evening – though with more dogs and small children. In fact, it looks like the sort of place you’d rather like to be.

But the night of that wedding, the peasants would have slept in poor huts, thinking over whether they had enough food left, to last through the winter. That new wife had no property, no rights of her own. The child in the foreground might not live to get married herself.

In the years that separate us from that picture, the world has changed vastly for the better. And most of that change happened in the last few generations.

Nearly seventy years ago, a young Swedish child called Hans almost drowned in a sewage ditch. His parents weren’t there to watch him – his father was working ten hours a day, his mother in hospital with tuberculosis.

But Hans Rosling survived – and he grew up to be a powerful communicator of the way the world is getting better. As he points out in his book Factfulness, Sweden in his lifetime has gone from being about as well-off as modern Egypt, to one of the healthiest, richest countries in the world.

Facing Europe’s challenges

That didn’t happen by magic. It wasn’t like a story in one of the comic books in this wonderful museum, where a lone hero instantly transforms the world for the better.

It’s a story of a democracy, working to improve people’s lives, bit by bit. Working gradually, step by step, but never giving up. Of workers’ rights, meaning that today, we work eight hours a day and not ten. Of investing in sanitation and insisting on safety – so that today our children don’t fall into sewage ditches. A story, as well, of vaccinations that have almost wiped out tuberculosis.

And knowing that gives me a lot of confidence in the future.

Because Europe faces a lot of challenges. Dealing with climate change and tax avoidance; keeping our economy growing and innovating.

But I still think that overall, the glass is more than half full. Because we have what it takes to face up to those challenges. Our democracies have faced bigger challenges before – and they can do it again, if we all put our shoulder to the wheel.

Getting Europe’s economy back on track

Ten years ago, almost to the day, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and set off the worst financial and economic crisis since the thirties. That crisis cost jobs, and drove companies out of business. And it undermined people’s confidence that the economy would be able to offer a better life for their children.

But today, a decade later, Europe is back. Last year, for the first time since 2007, every EU economy grow. Unemployment is back around the levels it was at before the crisis. And just a couple of weeks ago, Greece left the rescue programme that’s kept its economy stable for eight years.

We still have a lot of work to do. We need to invest in the things that will keep our economies growing strongly in the future – in research and infrastructure, in skills,  in helping smaller companies to grow and succeed. That’s why that sort of investment is right at the heart of the Commission’s proposals for Europe’s next seven-year budget.

And I’m hopeful about the future of Europe’s economy. Because I know that Europe has what it takes. We face some serious challenges – but we also know how to meet those challenges.

Making international trade fair as well as free

And that goes, not just for Europe, but the world.

Look at international trade. Gradually, over the last seventy years, countries around the world have opened up to trade. Cutting tariffs, and starting to remove other barriers that get in the way of trading freely with each other. Building institutions that make sure countries stick to their promises, and don’t hurt everyone in the search for a quick win for themselves. And that has made people’s lives richer.

But of course, that doesn’t mean we can afford to sit back, and be comfortable with the progress we’ve already made.

We still have work to do, to make sure that trade is fair as well as free. And that’s not easy. But we can do it – and I know that, because I see the progress we’re making all the time.

I see the trade agreements that my colleague, Cecilia Malmström, has put together in the last few years. Agreements like the one with Canada, with its commitments on both sides to protecting the environment, and defending workers’ rights. Or the deal we’ve negotiated with Japan, agreeing to avoid giving the sorts of subsidies that most harm competition.

And though not everybody are as committed to the WTO system as we’d like, we must continue to work together with other countries, to reform the WTO to make it work better and to make trade fairer.

And I find it encouraging that President Trump and President Juncker, in Washington this summer, agreed on a process for how we can sit down and reduce the tensions.

Taking a balanced view

So the thing is this. When you just look at the problems we face, they can seem pretty daunting. But when you see them in the context of how much we’ve done, and how much we’re capable of doing – well, then the world looks like a much less frightening place.

I see that all the time, in my own work on competition. When you consider the size of the businesses that consumers deal with each day – the power companies, the Internet businesses, the credit card networks – it’s easy to doubt that people have any power to get a fair deal.

But they do. Because no matter how big a company is, competition means it can never stop working to find ways to serve its customers better. And if those companies try to shut down competition market – well, then competition enforcers like the European Commission have the powers we need to defend competition, and keep the market working fairly for consumers.

The dangers of a distorted view

The trouble is, it’s not always easy to see that we do have the power to change things for the better. It’s easy to have a negative view – for it to seem like it isn’t worth making an effort, because none of our efforts seems to make a difference.

For many years, Hans Rosling asked the audiences at his lectures some basic questions about the state of the world. And the answers they gave were systematically wrong.

They thought that average life expectancy across the world was only sixty years – when it’s actually more than seventy. They thought that no more than half of the world’s people have access to electricity – far below the actual figure of 80%. They believed that just 20% of today’s one-year-old children have been vaccinated, when the level is actually 88%.

That’s quite shocking. But I don’t think it’s hard to understand why it happens. You just need to look at baby photos.

It’s a really strange feeling, to look at old photo albums and see your children again when they were babies. It can be hard to believe that they were ever so small – and disconcerting to realise that you’d forgotten how they used to be. I wonder if Jean Pisani-Ferry and Nicolas Véron ever get the same feeling, looking back at the documents from the early days of Bruegel.

Because of course, it’s human nature to notice the big, dramatic changes – but not the slow, gradual change that turns a baby into an adult. Or the slow, gradual change that builds a successful institution – or that makes the world around us a richer, healthier place.

And that can give us a negative view of the world – far more negative than the facts really justify.

The screenwriter Richard Curtis put it very nicely, in an interview he gave on television recently. It’s like the hare and the tortoise, he said. Bad news is the hare, getting all the attention, making the news. But the good news – the progress, the positive changes – is the tortoise, happening too gradually to get the media’s attention.

That’s understandable. But it can also be very harmful. Because it can make us easy prey for what you might call the “worry industry”. For the people who want to keep us in a state of fear, seeing only the problems, and never the solutions.

Tackling the refugee crisis

In 2015, more than a million refugees arrived in Europe, fleeing from conflict that destroyed their homes, their livelihoods, their children’s futures. Not since the Second World War, which drove twenty million Europeans from their homes, has Europe had to deal with such a crisis.

After that earlier crisis, countries all over the world agreed – in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later in the Refugee Convention – on the international duty to protect refugees. Think about that for a moment: 145 states have ratified a convention confirming that we all have a common duty to make sure that no refugee is returned to countries where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. It is hard to come across a stronger example of how we have made progress together.

But the crisis we faced in 2015 put a huge strain on our ability to live up to that duty.

That called for urgent action. It called for creating a European Border and Coast Guard, with the resources to protect Europe’s borders. For providing money to support the countries where refugees arrive, and working with the places where refugees arrive from, to help give them better protection and more opportunities.

And by last year, the number of refugees arriving in Europe by sea had fallen by more than 80% since 2015. What we have now is not a migration crisis, it’s a political crisis – a crisis that we need to solve. In Europe’s next seven-year budget, we’ve proposed to almost triple the amount of money that goes into managing migration. And we also need our Member States to decide that they want to solve the challenges together

But the worry industry wants us to see things differently. It wants people to see only the crisis, and not the way our democracies have responded. It wants us to believe that our values of democracy, of openness, of protecting vulnerable people, make it impossible to deal with the crisis. And in doing that, its greatest ally is our very own minds – our own tendency to see the dramatic problems, and not the careful solutions.

Standing up to the worry industry

So we need to stand up to the worry industry. By acknowledging the successes, as well as the challenges.

It’s tempting to try to fight drama with drama. To try to compete with the worry industry, by painting the world in the most lurid colours. To agree that things are going dramatically wrong – and argue that we, not our opponents, are the ones who can make everything better.

But I think that’s a mistake. I think that as democratic politicians, we need to be open, not just about what’s going wrong, but also what’s going right.

This is not about trying to play down the scale of the challenges we face. It’s not about ignoring the problems of today, by diverting attention to the achievements of the past.

It’s just the opposite. It’s about having the confidence to act.

Conclusion

Our world is no paradise. It never will be. Behind the joy of Bruegel’s peasant wedding were doubts and fears about the future – just like today.

And we do face big challenges – climate change and tax avoidance, terrorism and trade wars. But knowing about those challenges isn’t enough. People also need to know that it’s worth fighting for change – because change does happen, when you fight for it.

They need to know that democratic, liberal politics – undramatic as it may seem, compared with the promises of authoritarians – is the tortoise that has won the race, over and over, to make our lives healthier and happier and richer. So we can win their support to do it again.

That’s why I think what we really need is a little balance. A complete – you might call it a “factful” – view of the world.

Hans Rosling, sadly, died last year, after decades of work both as a doctor on the ground in Mozambique and Congo, and as a statistician to help us see the world in its true colours. But before he died, he handed on the baton to us – to politicians and think tankers, the media and the voting public – to try a little harder to be factful. To see our world as it really is – and then  go on to make it better.

Thank you.


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