LONDON: Government and business leaders trek to the freezing Swiss Alps next week for the annual Davos conclave, taking heat from a populist wave encapsulated in Brazil’s new far-right leader, trade conflicts and the looming onset of Brexit.
US President Donald Trump stole the show at last year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) with a tax-cutting agenda that harmonised with the corporate priority-list, even if many in the audience were agog at his more outspoken rhetoric on trade and the media.
But Trump ruled out a repeat visit, and on Thursday cancelled any representation by US officials at this year’s forum as a government shutdown drags on due to a funding row over his demand for a border wall with Mexico.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been slated to join Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan in Davos, as the two countries try to negotiate a truce to a punitive tariff war.
That leaves the stage clear for Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro to steal the spotlight on his first trip abroad since taking office earlier this month. The high-powered week of networking and socialising kicks off on Monday and will feature an eclectic lineup of discussions devoted to issues such as mindful parenting in the digital age, chronic loneliness, and harnessing artificial intelligence without destroying jobs.
The week is expected to draw some 3,000 political and business figures, including 65 government leaders from Germany, Israel, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Brazil’s custody of the Amazon rainforest will be under particular scrutiny, after a WEF survey this week found the Davos community worried most about climate change among sources of political and economic anxiety.
The survey highlighted fears of extreme weather patterns and the risk of disruption in an array of sectors including transport and logistics. On cue, heavy snowfall and deadly avalanches have hit the Alps this week, cutting off the train line to Davos at one point.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a climate sceptic. His pro-business agenda and appointment of a like-minded rightwinger as environment minister have done nothing to ease concerns about deforestation in the Amazon.
The new leader of Latin America’s largest economy will give the keynote address in Davos on Tuesday. He has vowed to showcase "a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption".
Bolsonaro has also echoed Trump in bashing China, even as the world’s second-biggest economy boosts Brazilian farm imports -- sourced in part from cleared Amazon lands -- as an alternative to US commodities in the midst of Trump’s trade war.
"Bolsonaro’s history doesn’t suggest he’s going to be a fervent adopter of the World Economic Forum’s mantra of cross-border, stakeholder cooperation," Douglas Rediker, chairman of International Capital Strategies in Washington, said in a phone interview.
However, Bolsonaro will be accompanied by his US-educated economy minister, Paulo Guedes, who speaks the kind of investment-friendly language that is music to Davos ears. As the first international gathering of 2019, the forum ought to be dominated by the climate emergency, Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan said.
"Instead, the agenda only addresses climate change as one issue of many. The Davos ‘elite’ are still pretending we have time to fix the climate crisis. We don’t," she said. Climate change threads through much of the Davos programme this year. With the bosses of some 1,700 companies attending, discussions will focus on how the business world is trying to adapt even if Trump has abandoned US leadership on the threat.
For Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s 80-year-old founder and executive chairman, the elite gathering also needs to reflect on the "losers" of globalisation and find ways to look after "those who have been left behind".
The "left behinds" figured heavily in the anti-establishment wave that in 2016 powered Britain’s referendum decision to quit the European Union. Brexit is meant to take effect on March 29 and there will be a chill in Davos about the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal in place after Prime Minister Theresa May’s preferred divorce terms were roundly defeated in parliament.
May will be another Davos no-show as she tries to unpick the deadlock in London, but International Trade Secretary Liam Fox will make the trip to try to sell a post-Brexit future for Britain.
"With Brexit, trade wars and populism -- politics is totally driving the Davos discussion this year when usually it’s economics that drives the politics. Amazing times," a senior European diplomat told AFP.
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