By MAX GARLAND
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Economic turmoil, population decline and a fear of change aren’t problems exclusive to West Virginia, says senior European Union diplomat Caroline Vicini.
The state, still searching for its footing in the midst of the coal decline, has its parallels across the Atlantic, said Vicini, deputy head of the EU’s U.S. delegation, during a visit to Charleston Tuesday.
“The problems here aren’t insulated. It’s not only in West Virginia,” she said. “There are regions in Europe which are having the same type of problems.”
It’s a big reason why Vicini was visiting Charleston. She met with state officials and business leaders for a pulse check on the European Union’s relationship with West Virginia as the state looks for economic answers.
EU delegates also want to see if West Virginians, who voted heavily for President Donald Trump, feel the decision to vote for Trump has paid off, as his administration pushes for reforms in health care and the tax code.
The trip formed as a result of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Vicini said, after the EU was “taken aback” by Trump’s criticisms of free trade deals. It’s part of larger effort by diplomats to spread the EU’s message on the ground with community leaders, as dealings with Trump have reached an impasse, she said.
“We see that there is a climate developing here that isn’t good on trade, so we decided we needed to go out and speak more about free trade,” she said.
Keeping free trade agreements like NAFTA in place and embracing partnerships with countries abroad remain vital for West Virginia’s future, as globalization won’t become any less important than it is now, she said. It will also help the state keep its options open in sectors like agriculture, which relies heavily on those agreements, she added.
“It is a struggle to leave one kind of industry behind,” she said of West Virginia’s coal industry. “But that is really what [the EU] has had to do in many other industries.”
Rural towns on Sweden’s west coast, where Vicini would spend childhood summers, have encountered the same troubles as the Mountain State, she said. The shipbuilding industry in Europe’s coastal cities is similar to coal’s decline, an industry that laid the economic foundation a city could build upon, she added. Countries like Poland, Portugal and Spain have seen direct EU support to cushion their fall.
“In Europe it’s a natural thing,” Vicini said. “You need this invisible hand of the government whether on the national level or the EU level to help people with the transition.”
Vicini said Europeans understand the frustration of West Virginians in feeling left out of an increasingly globalized economy. But the future of U.S. trade agreements — particularly NAFTA — remain a key concern for the EU, she said. NAFTA’s end would be “a huge blow” to the economy of all three countries involved, according to Vicini.
Arguments that nixing trade agreements and producing more goods in the U.S. will lead to economic growth are understandable in theory, she said. But Americans — particularly those with low incomes — have benefited from the reduced prices globalization has brought, she said.
“All these dollar stores that you have here, that are necessary for people of very low income, how are they going to get their supply?” she said if the U.S. went for an approach less reliant on trade.
There are options for people committed to buying local or American-made products, but the price will be higher more often than not, she said. She used plastic products as an example, which the U.S. often imports from China.
“If you’re trying to support the local businesses other than a huge supermarket, then it becomes a question of price,” she said. “If your dollars are really stretched, then it’s a difficult choice.”
American workers won’t be helped by the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, either, Vicini said. The clearest example of this will be in the automotive industry, she said, as companies will be wary to develop their vehicles in a country that isn’t following the same standards as the rest of the world. The agreement has also created an environment in which automotive companies are pushed to “continuously innovate,” she added.
“That’s why we get hybrid cars, that’s why we get electric cars,” she said. “Moving forward, if that pressure is not there, that innovation is not going to happen.”
There are sectors West Virginia can focus on to develop its path forward, according to Vicini. Liquid natural gas made in the U.S. has an eager market in the EU, she said, as it reduces the EU’s reliance on natural gas from Russia.
Tourism is another industry rife with potential, she said, with West Virginia being closer to Europe than states further west known for their recreation industries.
“It’s better for [the EU] to speak with states, companies and cities and try to be as encouraging as possible…,” she said. “It’s not always about what someone is saying in Washington. It’s about what’s on the ground, and every choice we make has an influence.”
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