Why should WEF appeal to the US President?

Trump may face a mixed reaction when he graces the WEF meeting in Davos Keystone

United States President Donald Trump has stirred up Switzerland by announcing he will attend the World Economic ForumExternal link in Davos later this month. It won’t be an official state visit, so what’s the big deal and what is WEF all about?

This content was published on January 10, 2018 - 15:49

Trump will be the second US President to visit WEF after the Bill Clinton carnival stole the show 18 years ago. Trump is expected to arrive with a huge retinue to spread the “America First” gospel for the benefit of the US economy, businesses and workers.

The annual Davos congress has grown exponentially since its first incarnation as the European Management Forum in 1971External link (renamed World Economic Forum in 1987). Given the breadth and depth of topics it now addresses, it should perhaps be known as the “World Everything Forum”.

In its nearly 50 years of existence, WEF has welcomed many global leaders, industry chiefs and bigwigs from the worlds of civil society, religion, technology and the arts. Some 3,000 delegates are willing to pay big bucksExternal link for the privilege of listening to debates, networking and deal making. Their every word is broadcast worldwide by a small army of journalists.

But US presidents have traditionally barely given it a second thought. Last year, Davos was abuzz and somewhat aghast at the shock election of Trump. The stage was left open for the first ever visit by a Chinese president, Xi Jinping. He wasted no time in promoting China’s powerhouse credentials and lambasting isolationists – a thinly-veiled dig at Trump’s America.

Commentators are speculating whether Trump plans to use this global platform to deliver a forthright answer. But beyond the rhetoric, Trump appears keen to roll up his sleeves and get down to the business of promoting US economic interests among an elite group of global power brokers.

Swiss President Alain Berset has welcomed Trump’s imminent arrival and hopes to arrange a meet-up to discuss some burning issues. These could include US tax reforms or Trump’s controversial trade policies. “This visit can only be a good thing for Switzerland,” Social Democrat parliamentarian Tim Guldimann said. “But it won’t do any good to use this occasion just to criticise his politics.”

Protests planned

But other politicians have warned not to expect too much political progress from Trump’s visit as his primary purpose is to rub shoulders with WEF’s elite rather than Swiss ministers.

Hotelier Ernst Wyrsch, who used to run the five star Steigenberger Grand Hotel Belvédère in Davos, said Trump’s visit willI be a bonus for the town. “Trump's visit will touch Davos dramatically. For the town, canton Graubünden and Switzerland this is great. Media attention will bo focused on Davos for the duration of his stay,” he told the Tages Anzeiger newspaper.

But not everyone is so happy. Protestors are also preparing for Trump’s Swiss visit. Switzerland and Davos are well used to protecting powerful delegates at WEF but the security forces will now have more to ponder. Already, the Swiss campaigning groups CampaxExternal link and Action Together: ZurichExternal link are planning marches on the weekend before WEF.

WEF key facts

Last year the World Economic Forum’s Davos Congress attracted around 3,000 visitors, including some 500 journalists. Similar numbers are expected this year when it runs from January 23-26.

Companies each pay between CHF60,000 and CHF600,000 in annual membership fees. For the financial year between July 2015 to June 2016, WEF generated a CHF228 million in revenues. The non-profit organisation paid a budgetary surplus of CHF1.2 million into its foundation.

A study by WEF and the University of St Gallen found that the 2015 Congress meeting generated CHF50 million ($51 million) for the local economy and an additional CHF79 million for the rest of Switzerland.

The Swiss government authorises up to 5,000 military personnel to provide security at the Davos event, but the full contingent is rarely used. Security costs of CHF9 million are spilt between the Confederation, canton Graubünden, the town of Davos and WEF.

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