Michal Ron was elected president of the Berne Union, the international association for the export credit insurance industry, at a particularly unstable time for global trade. In an exclusive interview with GTR, she looks back on her two-year term, which included major shocks to the trade credit insurance sector, beginning with a global pandemic and ending in war in Europe.


GTR: What was it like taking over as president of the Berne Union in Q3 2020 in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Ron: It’s just a case of fate that the period I entered and exited from was probably one of the most intense and the most challenging. But at the same time, to an extent, also very exciting. It was all unpredictable. And this really was a feature of my two-year mandate.

I still get goosebumps when I think of how I started and how I ended. Starting with a global pandemic, it was already in one of the worst moments, during lockdown. Then we had a very high number of natural disasters… all a consequence of climate change. And then as if that wasn’t enough, we had the war in Ukraine, at the very heart of Europe.

I was asked spontaneously at the last AGM, how can I summarise my two years’ experience​​ as president? I had to search a bit outside the English language and found an expression in Hindu that says Kabhi khushi kabhi gham – it means happiness sometimes, sorrow at another. Effectively, that’s how I feel about those two years, there were so many ups and downs. One thing you can say is that it was not a boring period, and it definitely didn’t leave anyone indifferent.


GTR: Did you have some objectives in mind when you began as president and do you think you achieved them?

Ron: One objective was definitely inclusivity and giving a voice to the lesser-known emerging markets, that multilateralism approach. Another was climate. Climate for me was one of the biggest pillars of my presidency. We created a working group task force on climate that included not just members of the Berne Union, but also the banking sector, development finance institutions and multilaterals. So that has been extremely effective and helpful for those of us who are, to an extent, lagging behind in terms of transformation towards greener, renewable energy, the circular economy. This working group is going to stay, as a certainty.

Last but not least, I also opted for a geographical region as an area of focus, because of its potential, which is the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Not everyone exports to, or is active in, that continent. But this is still the area where the largest growth, both trade and GDP, per annum is forecast. It is a very complex, and we could say also a particularly challenging region to operate in.


GTR: Did you have successes on improving multilateralism? Do you feel like the voices of developing countries are heard more clearly within the Berne Union and in the export credit world now, in the two years since you became president?

Ron: On this front, there were successes but unfortunately, my biggest regret for this period was also on the multilateralism front. As a result of the Ukraine war, we had to suspend the membership of the Union for two countries, Russia and Belarus. It went against all my past ideology, in terms of professional conduct on export credit. This is obviously something I will always regret personally, because it goes against the apolitical nature of the Berne Union. It was the first time ever that members were suspended on a geopolitical basis. It was petitioned by many of the Berne Union members, and it became inevitable when the UN came out with a resolution last March, condemning both countries on the international front, and sanctions were introduced.

But otherwise, the issue would have become extremely challenging because sanctions imposed by Europe, the US and the UK mean that we could not have convened physically. So, it was inevitable and it remains for me a very big regret because it’s a symbolic gesture that has a political nature and the Berne Union, by definition, is a non-political organisation.

The regret is that it doesn’t flow from multilateralism. But frankly, this is such an extraordinary set of events that there was just no other way. My only hope is that we will resolve it sometime in the near future, depending on any developments on that front. It’s totally unpredictable. It has never, ever happened in the past. So it really was – I hope – a once in a century case.


GTR: The war has also caused major energy price hikes; do you think export credit agencies (ECAs) are going to play a bigger role in helping secure imports, like the recent deals Euler Hermes has guaranteed with Trafigura for German gas and strategic commodities imports?

Ron: We call it a strategic import. It might have different names in different countries, but that’s what we’re looking at. It has become part of many ECAs’ portfolios and we are seeing the number increasing day by day. Certainly Germany you mentioned, Italy, there are other countries now introducing it. I think that feature will remain. It’s all related, of course, to the Ukraine-Russia war at the moment, but it is a feature that is probably here to stay.

We’re seeing more and more, especially, the use of untied facilities that are all about importing energy, but we’re also looking at raw materials. Each country perhaps has a list of its own but we see rare earths, we see nickel, we see clay, or in some countries, we see grains or rice. It really is a vast list at the moment.


GTR: Does ECA support for gas potentially contradict some climate goals, especially for members of the Export Finance for Future, who have committed to phasing out support for fossil fuels?

Ron: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. You have countries that are very adventurous in terms of climate change. Very few, but still some, have already declared a net-zero strategy already commencing on the first of January [2023]. But let’s not forget that so far we are talking about four ECAs, on a worldwide basis. Countries such as those in Northern Europe have been supporting renewable energy projects for a very long time, specialising in wind projects, solar projects and greener forms of energy. But then you have countries such as Germany, such as Italy, that have been very dependent on gas. This is clearly an issue that has internal contradictions in terms of what to do about public support for fossil fuels. We’re all grappling with this and I’m trying to come up with a best policy for this.

We obviously have a situation where we need to take into account a gradual phasing out, rather than an abrupt one point in time. At the Berne Union we’re doing a lot of information-sharing seminars in order to learn from more adventurous and greener export credit agencies and companies, insurers: how they do it, how they got there, how are they using scientific criteria to monitor progress? This exchange is ongoing and is taking place at an increasing rate.

We are, in parallel, grappling with the complexity of ensuring additional sources of energy. I think most of us will not go back to the worst offenders such as coal-based plants. Most of us have ruled it out. We see some countries, but we know that the situation right now is very abnormal and it shouldn’t be taken as a trend for the future.