Lucian Cernat*, Chief Trade Economist, European Commission
A recent LSE blog points out that economists, unlike other social scientists, are bad communicators. That’s probably true. Although, as economists would like to say, it depends!
Economists are fond of their complex jargon and expect their readership to share their love for acronyms, Greek letters and “invisible hands”. This is also visible in the area of international trade, where trade economists have not been able to communicate effectively the benefits from trade to politicians and voters, as recently noted in a Boston Globe article.
Until recently, that didn’t really matter. Trade policy used to be circumscribed to a small circle of experts, academics, policy wonks or lobbyists with a business background. But in recent years, trade-related issues percolated to a much wider audience, notably after the anti-TTIP campaigners enlarged the spectrum of interest to capture a lot more people, particularly millennials. In the current environment, a successful trade policy communication needs to address the wider set of stakeholders: businesses, trade unions, NGOs, local politicians, and ultimately EU voters. The positive benefits of global trade are abstract, part of the “invisible hand” logic. The anti-trade campaigners are also very good at using simple, visual and often distorted messages on social media to appeal to people’s emotions.
Given the sheer number of people with a social media account, a compelling social media campaign about the benefits of trade could be a great way to build awareness of the importance of trade in our daily lives. Hence, an honest and successful communication strategy about the benefits of trade for the EU society has to allow people to resonate personally with our messages. Trade benefits are often like a “misty imperceptible rain” which voters or consumers won’t notice directly, unless prompted with factual, relevant information. A successful social media communication on trade therefore needs to be based on new Trade Policy 2.0 logic: for social media messages to be impactful, we need to unpack the main traditional narrative of EU trade policy based on macroeconomic indicators into a wider set of detailed firm-level factual, local and more visible metrics. We need to do this so each and every individual (be it a consumer, a worker, an entrepreneur, an NGO activist or a local politician) can understand the economic case for trade in a way that resonates with them. It is about more direct messages that can speak to politicians who care about local impact, to individual consumers or to workers affected by (or afraid of) globalization. Even among business stakeholders, the actors most directly impacted by EU trade policy, there is a communication deficit, notably with small and medium size enterprises that currently engage in trade, often with insufficient support and information.
Deploying the Trade Policy 2.0 logic led to a first initiative and a first major communication success during the CETA ratification process. By creating a catchy Twitter hashtag – #CETAcomes2town – and by producing a simple set of infographics and an interactive map showing European firms exporting to Canada that stand to benefit from CETA, DG TRADE provided for the first time a real picture of the benefits of trade. Voters and politicians could finally see how EU trade policy benefits their city or region. The new type of information, presented through data visualisation and infographics, and supported with concrete examples of exported products and the number of jobs supported by exports to Canada, has made a difference in the policy debates surrounding the CETA ratification process.
The economics profession has a duty to do better. Unlike the usual type of information provided by economists (dry, abstract and based on complex models and assumptions), the #FTAcomes2town campaign could be deployed more regularly for all new and important FTAs (e.g. Singapore, and in due course Japan, Mexico, etc.) to make it possible for everyone to engage. It doesn’t matter if you have a high economic literacy level or not. You can still look at the map of Europe and see the number of EU exporters in your town. In a more indirect way, it also shows you why a common and united EU trade policy offers so much more than it detracts. Once you see the rationale for a EU common commercial policy, you can zoom in and navigate across cities and regions in all EU Member states to get real examples of small companies exporting a wide range of products and thus creating thousands of jobs in that community. The #FTAcomes2town facts and figures help politicians justify to their local constituency why they voted in favour of a particular FTA.
By adopting a novel and dynamic data visualisation approach, the Trade Policy 2.0 firm-level approach was able to reach out to a wider audience at a rate that wouldn’t have been achievable just with a few advocacy events or a couple of newspaper articles. No matter who you are, how much you know about trade or economics, or which language you speak, the #CETAcomes2town map and its powerful messages speak to you.
* The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent an official position of the European Commission.
In this series of blog posts, we would like to present initiatives and practices aiming at promoting free trade within society. The information and views set out in these contributions are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Centre for International Political Economy.