Recent years have shown that trade policy is no longer an issue discussed behind closed doors. Grassroots movement’s campaigns have brought the topic to the streets. More and more people participate in anti-TTIP and anti-CETA demonstrations in Brussels, the trade policy capital of the European Union. It is not unusual to spot individuals with ‘stop-TTIP’ stickers on their backpacks, walking down the street of the Charlemagne building, the exact place where policymakers negotiate trade agreements. As some might try to look the other way, it is hard not to see the same slogan painted on roads and viaducts across the city.
Surprisingly, the recent European-wide survey reveals that 73% of citizens consider free trade as positive. The Brussels’ political circles also strongly believe that free trade is essential to bring economic growth, jobs and prosperity to the European citizens. However, only 44% of the EU consumers think they are benefiting from it and even less – 20% – think that trade with external partners can create jobs. Despite most economic studies highlighting the positive effects of opening up markets, negative emotions surround trade negotiations.
Even more interesting, despite the European Commission’s efforts to engage civil society groups in public consultation, the trust in politicians and government is at historic low (29%). People are more inclined to rely on their peers’ views (60%) and information collected on social media. Likewise, and contrary to the recent feeling of the distrust and dislike in some countries, 60% of the respondents consider the opinions of academic experts as trustworthy. This demonstrates the unexploited potential for many think tanks to join the conversation and contribute to a better understanding of free trade issues.
The current ease with which opinions can be spread has no record in history: one can reach millions within a click of a button. A digitalized society is a great opportunity for think tanks to not only provide high quality research papers or economic reports, but also shape trade policy narrative globally. We can use technological advancement to easily reach out to citizens and tailor content accordingly to needs. We just need to break people out of ‘echo chambers’ where anti-trade believes and ideas are reinforced, and conflicting views are suppressed.
Think tanks’ technical and data-boosted white papers and impact assessments written in academic language help policy-makers make informed decision, but they do not contribute much to public discussions about trade. As the former US Ambassador, Anthony Gardner recently pointed out, ‘Images and stories are so powerful. Facts are not enough.’ Think tanks operating in globalized society should increase their impact by streamlining economic messages and including real-life examples of social interactions that benefit from free trade. We must make it clear that we don’t consider citizens as just another number, but individuals who encounter new opportunities when markets are open. By appealing to reader’s emotions we show understanding of their concerns and a will to have a dialogue.
As think tanks’, policy experts and communications specialists, we should follow the example of civil society movements and step up our game in trade policy communication. We cannot shy away from public discussion and criticism. We should present both positive and negative effects of trade to regain trust in policymaking. As some might ignore ‘anti-TTIP’ paintings and stickers around Brussels, we should not slur over the fact that the major trade and investment agreement was jeopardized on the wave of popular criticism and discontent. We have all the modern communication tools at our disposal, we have knowledge, skills and data we just need to learn how to use them better.