In an international economic context, the 2016 US presidential election is one of the most significant for decades. The fact that trade policy is one of the biggest issues in the election campaign means that there is a lot at stake in the election for other countries, not least the EU and Sweden. What is unique about this year’s presidential election is that it is between two candidates who take a skeptical view of free trade, albeit to varying degrees.
The US presidential election will have reverberations far beyond the country’s borders. The US is an economic superpower, whose impact on the global economy is substantial. The country is the world’s second-largest economy and a global leader in innovation and research.
Europe and Sweden are especially dependent on the transatlantic economy. The US is the EU’s biggest export market and Sweden’s largest export market outside Europe. But the US is also dependent on the EU and Sweden for growth and employment.
Sweden is the US’s largest foreign direct investor per capita, and some 1,200 businesses with links to Sweden are active in the country. Sweden’s foreign trade with the US supports over 330,000 US jobs. Undoubtedly, less openness to foreign trade and investment would risk making the US and countries like Sweden poorer.
Trade and trade policy has become a hot political topic. Country after country have seen the trade between countries, regions, businesses and people become more ideologically loaded. This has been evident in Europe, in countries such as the UK, where trade policy was high on the agenda during the UK’s EU membership referendum. It is also patently clear in the US, where more than one in two voters regard trade policy as “very important” for their votes.
Donald Trump is highly critical of the trade policy pursued by previous administrations, Democratic and Republican. His view is that their policies resulted in jobs and businesses moving overseas.
His has proposed that the current free trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico – the North American Free Trade Agreement – should be abandoned, and that high tariffs should be imposed on imports from countries that “take American jobs”. Specifically, he suggests raising a 45 percent tariff on imports from China, and a 35 percent tariff on imports from Mexico.
But nor does Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton embody a miracle cure for increased trade and greater investment. She has adopted a clear stance against the new free trade agreement that the US secured after seven years of negotiation with Australia, Japan and other countries, the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership. Apart from abandoning the TPP representing a strategic and economic loss, it would worsen prospects of an ambitious and comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which the EU and the US have been negotiating since 2013.
So why are both candidates’ trade agendas so worthy of our attention? There are two main reasons. The first is that the conditions facing US foreign trade are the most important mechanism through which Europe and the world economy could be affected economically by the new President’s policy.
The second relates to the structure of the US political system, which confers the President with considerable authority to implement protectionist policy. The power-sharing structure inherent in the country’s political system does not prevent the country’s next president from forcing through protectionist measures.
The President does require a mandate from Congress to negotiate new free trade agreements, and new free trade agreements have to be approved by Congress to come into force. However, Congressional approval is not required to abandon free trade agreements already entered. There are examples of former Presidents who have exploited this room to maneuver to erect various trade barriers.
Analysis of the trade policy proposals that have been presented during this presidential election clearly indicate that they would represent an economic shock if they became a reality. If some of the more draconian proposals became reality, the outcome could be up towards four million job losses in the US alone. Obviously, this would have negative knock-on effects that would damage Europe, and especially countries and regions like Sweden, which have extensive trade with the US.
We should add that at present, precisely how willing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would actually be to realize each of their trade policy agendas remains hard to assess, regardless of what is possible to implement in purely practical terms. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of concerns hanging over global trade.
The risk is that the halcyon days of free trade have passed. From having enjoyed broad-based political support from right and left, free trade now appears to be under fire from both sides. Responsible politicians, in partnership with the business and academic communities, really need to pull together and stand up for globalization, economic openness and collaboration, which free trade is fundamentally about. If not, the potential for jobs and growth on both sides of the Atlantic is under threat.
Article by Maria Rankka, CEO of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, and Andreas Hatzigeorgiou, Chief Economist of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and Research Fellow at the Ratio Institute.