Since 2016, the Trump election, Brexit, and right-wing challenges across Europe have revealed an economic crisis of extraordinary proportions. Decades of laissez-faire economic policy have yielded a collapse in financial security for workers and farmers and a concentration of economic power at the very top. Now, China’s state capitalism has emerged to challenge the liberal economic and political order, with similar implications for workers and corporate concentration.
Sadly, the nationalist response in the United States since 2016 has largely made the problems worse, while Europe is often left on its own in defending the liberal principles of broadly distributed economic power.
In 2008, the world faced a global financial crisis of similar proportions, but it responded together with extraordinary actions. Instead of our current, failing nationalist approach, America and the European Union must work together again. They can do this by building a new “special relationship” between Washington and Brussels, in which they commit to domestic reforms in flexible coordination with one another. This would have two economic aims: to combat corporate monopolies and to boost worker power globally. And since principle-based agreements like these rely on political will, the new relationship would work best in combination with a progressive trade deal, as Daniel Block proposed in his piece for this magazine last summer.
Block correctly argued that the United States and the European Union must address the collapse of labor power, tax evasion by companies, climate change, and related progressive concerns. But his proposal, bold as it is, is only part of the response. That’s because a trade agreement, with limited exception, is a complement to fixing domestic standards, not a replacement.
To that end, the U.S. and the EU should agree to adopt a set of domestic reforms, akin to the international response led by President Obama after the 2008 financial collapse. In the wake of the recession, the U.S. rallied the G20 around a common set of principles to guide financial reforms in each country. The reforms covered everything from standards for how many reserves large banks should maintain to protect against insolvency, to how countries could best manage the failure of large banks if and when that happened. But the principles were flexible enough to permit countries to do more—such as a ban on high-risk “proprietary trading” in the U.S. and a cap on banker bonuses in the EU.
None of this was done through a trade agreement, but rather through political commitments from each country. The urgency of the crisis was the driving force for action, and while more could have been done (and still must be), U.S. leadership was critical to driving progress. Today, the rise of illiberal nationalism on both continents, coupled with attacks on our democracies by Russia and the rise of China, has given a similar urgency to our politics. The next progressive administration will have a chance to negotiate dramatic reforms that seemed impossible only a few years ago.
We could use a process similar to the post-financial-crisis reforms to increase the power of workers and farmers and rein in monopolies. To boost the economic power of workers, this U.S.-EU agreement would include commitments to raise or secure union density against the range of political interests and economic forces pressing against it. In the U.S., under a progressive administration and a progressively minded Senate, this would be achieved through a host of domestic reforms to undo 40 years of conservative attacks on unions, including enhanced strike rights and penalties for lawbreaking employers, as well as by adopting sector-wide bargaining.
In addition to giving more power to workers, the new U.S.-EU agreement would combat monopolies. It would begin by both the U.S. and Europe welcoming antitrust enforcement efforts by the other jurisdiction. And it would go one step further—countries in this new agreement would work together on antitrust investigations to maximize their resources and effectiveness. Much like attorneys general in different states in the U.S. are working in conjunction to investigate big tech companies, different countries who had signed onto this agreement could work together when investigating multinational companies or concentrated sectors. This wouldn’t bind countries to the same exact outcomes, lest that result in lowest-common-denominator enforcement. But pooling limited government resources can help us tackle enormously complex global companies and international supply chains.
Farmers in both the U.S. and the EU are being squeezed by monopolies, and they could benefit from the new agreement as well. On one end, farmers are forced to take high prices from their suppliers. The four largest suppliers—firms such as Bayer, which owns Monsanto—control 85 percent of the corn-seed market, up dramatically in recent decades. On the other end, commodity-trading companies and massive food processors, like JBS and Tyson Foods, use their market dominance and oppressive contract terms to force farmers and ranchers to sell their products at unfairly low prices. In the U.S., farmers could be helped greatly by enforcing antitrust laws that are already on the books, which would be supported through a U.S.-EU commitment to dismantling agriculture monopolies.
These reforms would best be complemented by the progressive trade agreement outlined by Block. The forces of globalization have shifted bargaining power in favor of mobile capital and against domestic workers—but a progressive trade agreement could help mitigate that. Harking back to the Havana Charter’s vision, it should add standards to ensure fair competition, like clear labeling for domestically raised products, which could strengthen farmers too. And the trade deal could help enforce labor, environmental, and other standards by slapping duties on, or blocking at the border, products from any country that violates them—say, by denying workers collective-bargaining rights or permitting the emission of industrial toxins.
A coordinated anti-monopoly effort is also critical to meeting the challenge posed by China, where state-subsidized companies are angling to monopolize global markets and critical infrastructure (think Huawei gunning for dominance in 5G). A tough application of U.S. and EU antitrust law can supplement the screening of Chinese investments that might pose security risks, as well as other tough trade action against Chinese companies that get unfair state subsidies. And as the U.S. and the EU take steps to rein in the dominance of their own multinational companies, that may also reduce the pressure that China feels to build its own monopolies to compete with ours.
In the Trump era, the international economic response to the problems facing workers and farmers has not gone smoothly, leaving everyone worse off. But a more progressive administration in the United States could kick off an international process to address shared challenges and rebuild economic relationships with allies. After all, progressive priorities in the U.S.—like raising labor and environmental standards and countering monopolies—are shared by Europeans and many other countries around the world. Counteracting the forces fueling economic distress for working families, the concentration of economic power, and the ensuing deep distrust in government would be a solid foundation around which to organize transatlantic economic and political relations. And with the rising challenge of China, it would help secure freedom and democratic self-government in the 21st century.