She spent almost two decades in Brussels, first as a Liberal MEP and later as the head of two of the most powerful portfolios of the European Commission: Interior and Trade. He speaks English, French, Spanish perfectly (as well as Swedish) and fluently defends himself in German and Italian. And she has one of the best agendas on the European scene, something to which she gives special value in her bid to become the next head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on June 1. Cecilia Malmström (Stockholm, 52 years old) attends EL PAÍS by phone from southern Sweden, where she has not seen the sun for more than three weeks. With a curriculum at the height of very few applicants, although also with the reluctance of some countries with which he had clashes during his stage in the community sphere – something that has already penalized him recently, when he entered the pools to take over the leadership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) -, the first question is sung.
Question. Do you see yourself as the favorite to succeed Ángel Gurría?
Reply. I dont know. All the candidates are very strong: there are presidents, former ministers, two former commissioners … That means that the OECD has a good reputation and that many want to take the reins of this organization. I am talking to many capitals and I have the advantage that I know many people, because I have not only worked with European countries but also with others on issues of international relations and trade. That’s an advantage, but the competition is strong and I don’t feel like a favorite.
P. What support do you have?
R. I prefer to be cautious. Ambassadors [de los Estados miembro] They meet in early January to start making the list of candidates a little shorter. As in all these elections, there are merits and experience but also politics, geography and other issues that governments take into consideration. The ending is very open.
P. What makes you want to lead the OECD?
R. It is an organization that has always been very useful and important to many countries, and now there is an opportunity to relaunch multilateral cooperation after the crisis. The OECD works well, but after 15 years with a very strong, dominant and charismatic Secretary General I think that with my experience and contacts I can contribute.
P. It emphasizes the importance of the multilateral. Are you confident that Joe Biden’s victory and the Brexit lesson will usher in an era of greater cooperation between countries?
R. I hope so. Multilateralism is the only modern way to cooperate: I believe a lot in predictable rules and global institutions. This crisis has made us see that we can only get out together, and the signals coming from the new US Administration give hope.
P. Are you confident that the new president can turn the recent US retreat on himself?
R. For now, you have said that the tariffs on steel and aluminum are reckless so I hope this can change. The United States has imposed tariffs on friendly countries, on allies, doing a lot of damage to the relationship not only with Europe, but with Asia or Latin America. I believe that this may end, and that the Americans are going to take a constructive stance to strengthen and modernize the WTO out of the stalemate it is in now.
P. Do you expect, then, a radical change in the way of understanding international trade compared to the Trump era?
R. I think there will be changes, but not so dramatic. Domestic issues have always been the most important to Americans and are the ones that will continue to be prioritized. The tone and the rhetoric, for example regarding China, will change. But I don’t know if there will be a big twist. What there will be, sure, is a goal of working and collaborating with friendly countries, with allies: there is a momentum to work together, also in the OECD.
P. The vaccines are arriving, but the sudden recession that the coronavirus has brought has not yet had its last word. How do you see the exit of the tunnel?
R. We see, indeed, that there are vaccines on the horizon. But it is important not to withdraw fiscal stimulus too early. It was a mistake that was made during the global crisis of 2008 and that we must not repeat. We will return to more discipline.
P. The general feeling is that the OECD works well as think tank, but far worse as a dealmaker. In 2020, for example, it has failed in its attempt to illuminate a Google common.
R. It has not failed. The process and technical work are well advanced, with 137 countries involved.
P. But the goal was to have it ready in 2020.
R. Yes, but there is the crisis, the covid-19, the campaign in the US … The date has not been met, but the process has far from failed. When the new US Administration takes office it will be discussed again: the technical work is well advanced. It would be a historic agreement, and it would also be bad for countries to start introducing the rate individually now, when there is still a great possibility to reach an agreement before this summer.
P. There has been even less progress in the fiscal area: tax havens continue to drain billions of euros of revenue from countries every year. Also in Europe.
R. Well, if international conventions and cooperation exist, it is thanks to the OECD. Much more can still be done against money laundering in tax havens, including at the G20 and G7 level. But quite a bit has been done in recent years.
P. Another issue that will surely be on the agenda of the next head of the OECD is the tax on polluting gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide.
R. Yes. It is something in which the OECD has to take the initiative. If we really want this measure to have an impact on the environment and not just fiscal and be compatible with the rules of the WTO, we have to do it in a global way.
P. When do you see it feasible? Five years?
R. Yes, in five years I think it would be possible, but there is still a lot of work to do. And above all, the political will is lacking, which has to come from the Member States. The general secretary can facilitate an agreement, and that is something that I have done a lot in my life as a commissioner, but political will is very important.
P. The last country to join the OECD has been Colombia and the next to do so will be Costa Rica. The expansion of the club seems clearly to be aimed at Latin America.
R. There are three European countries [Rumania, Croacia y Bulgaria] and three Latin American countries [Argentina, Brasil y Perú] who are candidates. All of them have made a great effort to align their economies and their policies towards the OECD. It is a huge job, but it is a process that has been blocked by some countries: accessions are decided unanimously and it has not been possible. I hope the situation can be unblocked in these six cases.
P. But, would you say that the natural path of enlargement is towards Latin America?
R. Yes. They are countries that want to enter and that have made many reforms. But it is not a matter of geographies: the OECD is, above all, a community of values. Expanding for the sake of expanding doesn’t make sense, but if there are countries that meet the criteria in Asia or, someday, Africa, it will be a good thing.
P. She would be the first woman to lead the organization.
R. We are three candidates: two former commissioners [ella misma y la griega Anna Diamantopoulou] and a president [la estonia Kersti Kaljulaid], and it would be an important sign that, after 60 years, a woman takes the reins of the OECD after 60 years, as has already happened in the IMF, the ECB or the European Commission. It would mean a new break in the glass ceiling. The OECD has done and does impressive research work on gender and equal opportunities, but it is true that in its leadership there are many men and that does not reflect the diversity of the Member States. It would be an important sign.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.