From Paris to Davos

Bern, 21.01.2015 - Speech by the President of the Confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga, at the opening of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (WEF) 2015. Check against delivery.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many of us already met last week at an unscheduled event in one of Switzerland's neighbouring countries. The attack on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo was an attack on the concept of a free society. How did the people in France react to the attack? They came together for the largest public gathering in France since 1944. Several million people took to the streets. Their message was clear:

We stand united. And we say what we think.

I was greatly impressed by the demonstration of unity. Not only the fact that so many people took to the streets, but the way in which they did so: They remained calm and peaceful. There was no aggression. The people on the streets knew that this was not the time for anger. The Paris march was a demonstration for freedom and for our universal values. The Paris march was a demonstration of human dignity.

Today, we once again assure France and its citizens of our solidarity. And we thank President François Hollande for his determined yet humane reaction to the tragic events. Let us be inspired by the spirit of Paris here in Davos, where our discussions will be focussed primarily on economic issues.

Ladies and gentlemen, the theme of this year's Annual Meeting is "The New Global Context". If I had to describe this global context in just one word, I would say it is one of uncertainty. I am not only talking about the current conflicts and crisis regions. I am also referring to the situation in the comparatively prosperous countries of Europe. Of course, Europe is not short of problems, but historically speaking it has probably never been a better place to live than it is today. Nonetheless, in many countries in Europe, nationalist and populist parties are on the rise. They are critical of globalisation, reject immigration, and incite scepticism towards the EU. It is particularly worrying that such political parties enjoy popularity even in countries with low rates of unemployment and strong economies. How can we explain this?

The answer to this question is complicated. One thing is for sure: overall, globalisation has led to greater prosperity and reduced poverty. However, That is not the case everywhere. Globalisation induces in many people a deep-seated sense of uncertainty. Even in prosperous countries, more and more people feel that they will only be able to hold onto their jobs or find work if they become even more efficient, more mobile, more flexible and more industrious.

Are we creating an economic environment in which only high-performers working under constant pressure can prevail? Such fears are not entirely unfounded. Competition is growing for the highly developed economies too. In more and more countries, workers are still paid low wages, but now offer highly-skilled labour too.

This means that even leading economies can only remain successful if they are prepared to continuously make structural changes. Structural change in itself is not a bad thing. But let's face the fact: Structural change produces winners and losers. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something we cannot simply accept.

I repeat: globalisation has a range of effects. So let us talk about both sides of the coin. We may suppress or gloss over the unpleasant things, but sooner or later they will come to the surface, and when they do, the force of the impact is invariably twice as great.

I am sure that one of the reasons why national conservative parties in Europe are popular right now is that globalisation has caused a vague sense of uncertainty. These parties invoke a nation's sovereignty and a native country symbolising familiarity and safety. We know that this describes an ideal past that never was.

And we don't have to look far back into Europe's history to find bitter poverty, misery and conflict. Yet it would be a dangerous mistake to ignore the uncertainty felt by many people. Many citizens find it difficult to identify with an economy whose dimensions have reached unimaginable proportions. Many are asking:

  • How far is the balance of power shifting, if the turnover of some global corporations is higher than the gross national product of many states - as is the case today?
  • What do we think when we hear that shares are no longer held for several years, but for an average of 22 seconds, as one economist recently calculated?
  • How much confidence can we have in financial institutions that break the law and end up paying billions of dollars in fines? What values do they communicate?

Ladies and gentlemen, who can provide the people with the answers to these questions? Many business leaders have avoided assuming the responsibility for answering such questions for far too long. What we need is businesspeople who want to earn money, but who also want something more.

  • We need businesspeople who want to give others a chance.
  • We need employers who set benchmarks not only in terms of profit, but also in terms of corporate culture.
  • We need, for example, commodities groups that prohibit all forms of forced labour and exploitation and which recognise the rights of others, e.g. workers' freedom of assembly.

Ladies and gentlemen, policymakers must also accept their share of responsibility. They must put in place a sound framework - based on the rule of law, legal certainty, no corruption, and the protection of human rights and social justice. These elements are key to a healthy economic and social order. It is the task of politicians to introduce and enforce these elements where they do not yet exist. And it is for politicians to protect and defend them where they already apply. This requires determination, clear values and steadfastness. Nothing has greater value in politics than credibility.

It was an important gesture for politicians from around the world to take part in the march in Paris to defend freedom of expression. But what is far more important is to defend human rights day after day in one's own country, even when there are no TV cameras around. Here in Davos, let us also discuss the fact that in many places in the world, journalists are being imprisoned, even punished by flogging, simply because they say and write what they think.

Ladies and gentlemen, many of us are asking questions following the attacks in Paris. Existential questions that we have perhaps not asked ourselves for a long time. Who are we really, what values are so important to us that we consider them to be universal? What does dignity mean to us? I believe we also need to ask ourselves these questions here at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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