Romano Prodi: A Hopeful Return to Global Dialogue

Jan 26 , 2021

Romano Prodi, Former Prime Minister of Italy, Former President of the European Commission.


Thank you so much for your kind introduction. And I have something to add to the CV. While I was teaching, at Brown University, as you remember, I've also been teaching for the same number of years in Shanghai, at China-Europe International Business School. 

So I'm very willing to exchange and to connect young Chinese and young Americans. And you may be surprised, but they are very similar, in the sense that I have never found such a sense of achievement on both sides. Both in this generation come with the feeling that in their lives they can achieve everything. And then, of course, it's for me, a European to be surprised by the fact that you have the same type of dynamism on both sides. And, you know, it has been a great experience. 

So I now have the experience of not being American, not being Chinese, but to have been a teacher of both sides, to express as a European my feelings on U.S.-China relations. 

I am not, of course, an expert specifically on that. But I can express the European point of view. And in this moment, I think this is absolutely interesting. 

Europe, of course, is in the middle of the two. And last year (and is quite interesting to underline last year), European trade with China surpassed European chain trade with the United States. And this is absolutely a great historic change, because for so many years' trade with the United States dominated. 

But from the European point of view, I don't think that there will be a major change in the relationship between China and the United States. Of course, there will be more dialogue. There will be more politeness. In the last year, this was not characteristic of the meetings between the Chinese and the Americans. Yet I have to say, for Europe many times it was the same situation we had in our relations with the United States. I share the positive sentiment that my friend expresses of the political change inside the United States. 

But as I hinted, there will be no major change because the Chinese political framework will go on, in a similar way they have. Second, inside the United States, there are political tensions, but the feeling of competition with China is very similar among Republicans and Democrats. And so probably there is a necessity for deeper dialogue and deeper exchanges of views. At this moment, we need European perspectives.

Last year, in the last days, we had another major change in Europe. The European Union and China signed a very important agreement on investments and reciprocal trade. It's important, as I hinted before, for the relationship between Europe and China, because of the agreement's dimensions and depth. But it's also important from an economic point of view for relations between the United States and China, because there was, let's say, some nonpositive reaction on the American side. During the change of power of the United States, there was some sort of agreement between Europe and China. But this, of course, is important, because it was not a definitive agreement but a proposal including many aspects of trade integration that I do think must be discussed. These include the United States because they concern the rules of trade in the relationship. They establish a legal framework for trade and the relations between governments and companies — and so is very important. 

I insist on the fact that is not definite. It is only, let's say, a framework and must be approved by the European Parliament. And the European Parliament will probably raise some political problems. There will be debates beyond economics that will include problems of politics and so on.  But it is a very important first step. As I hinted before, we'll have to have a general discussion, find a general necessity and reach a general agreement — not just Europe-China, China-U.S., Europe-U.S. but all three big areas together. 

This is absolutely important because Europe now has strong autonomy in terms of trade and so there would be parity between China, the United States and Europe. And we have to discuss from the beginning this type of relationship.  The importance of that, will be establishing some sort of equal playing field in new discussions about trade among the three big world players.   

But this will happen through a deep change in the economy, not only (as Chretien correctly stresses) because China's progress has been remarkable. 

But we are also trying to understand that world competition is changing deeply, that the pandemic and past years of tensions between the United States and China are changing world competition. We will not simply go back to the idea of  global trade but will have a scenario of a different shape. Globalization will still go on, but with some sort of deep adaptation involving self-sufficiency. There must be quite a few global changes in all the three areas. 

And it was so important, but it was impossible to achieve in a difficult moment, given the instruction to all governments that each of the big areas need to have some sort of presence in a value chain. 

This will of course be even more important in all the technological areas of the economy. We will still have many, points of tension in the future, especially in technology related to military applications or related to the superiority of one technological system over another. 

So, we are in this new moving world in which the necessity of dialogue has been correctly described by Canada's former prime minister. It will be easy for new types of competition to create tensions because of the competition for world primacy. Clearly I am putting my attention on the dangers of the changes that we have in front of us. 

But there are also fields in which I foresee a strong rapprochement. The first one is that the environment will be a dominant topic in the future. Here, the perspective has totally changed. I remember when I was president of the European Commission that we insisted on signing the first agreement for the environment, the so called Kyoto Protocol. And we did it, but against China and the United States. And now to find Europe, China and the United States together working for the environment, I think that it is a great new perspective of cooperation, and the environment is so important and carries so many consequences. I do think that will facilitate the dialogue of the three big economic entities. 

So, I end by saying that my worries and deep apprehension for the future have given way to a ray of hope for new cooperation that will work toward environmental goals. We should find in this the beginning of global cooperation so that the time of confrontational bilateral relations will be over, and we return instead to the dialogue that will include all the big players of the world. 

Thank you for your patience. Let us hope this pandemic will end. I'm still isolated, in my home, and I don't know how or when I shall get away. Clearly, we have to meet again, looking into each other's eyes and talking together. Because, you know, to be so far away is not the best connection for dialogue. 

Thank you so much.