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'It's a big deal': why former protester turned Davos mayor wants WEF back

Rupert Neate
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Alessandro Della Valle/EPA</span>
Photograph: Alessandro Della Valle/EPA

In his youth, Philipp Wilhelm was at the forefront of protests against the World Economic Forum’s annual “extreme capitalism” gathering of the business and political elite in Davos, the Swiss mountain resort where he grew up.

Now, however, Wilhelm is the mayor of the town and his central mission is to ensure the return of the WEF jamboree, which had been scheduled to start next week but was cancelled this year due to the pandemic.

“It’s a very big deal that the WEF is not coming to Davos this year,” Wilhelm, 32, said in a video interview from his office in the town hall.

“A lot of companies, and a lot of people, rely on revenue from the WEF and it’s a very difficult time for them with the pandemic and without the WEF meeting. Some of the businesses are really dependent on the WEF week, when a few of them may make about 40% of their annual income.”

Every January since 1971 – with the exception of 2002, when the WEF meeting relocated to New York in a show of solidarity in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack – thousands of the world’s richest and most influential people, their aides, security guards and the media have descended on the snowy slopes of Davos for the WEF meeting.

While businesses, hoteliers and apartment landlords relish the opportunity to jack up their prices 10-fold or more, many of the town’s residents complain about endless traffic jams, pollution, intense security checks and the corrupting influence of the global super-rich on the morality of young people.

Every year, Davos residents are joined by protesters from across Switzerland and the rest of Europe demanding an end to the meeting – or that it at least attempts to better represent all of society and acknowledges global challenges such as the climate crisis.

In the early 2010s, in the wake of the financial crisis, Wilhelm joined the protests over several years. “In my early days I was demonstrating during the WEF for better action against climate change and social justice. Now I am trying to get the WEF back to Davos,” he said with a laugh.

Wilhelm, who in November became the first member of the leftwing Social Democratic party (SP) to be elected mayor of Davos, said it was his experiences at the protests that led him to stand for office. “Actually, I got into politics thanks to the WEF, because I started to think about how the economy works, how politics work,” he said. “It was my entrance point.”

Since then, Wilhelm says both he and the WEF have changed their positions, and he said he can do much more to influence policy from inside the steel ring of security that surrounds the Davos congress centre.

But he also warned Davos businesses that are missing the money they would have collected during the WEF – which will this year meet in a pared-down event in Singapore in May – that they had allowed themselves to become too reliant on the WEF money train. The WEF, he said, brings in €50m-€60m to the local economy.

“Some take it for granted, that this kind of revenue will come every year no matter what,” Wilhelm said. “Now, of course it’s not a good time, but it is a time when a lot of people are realising not to take anything for granted. ”

One of the biggest financial losers from the WEF’s non-appearance this year will be the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvédère, the fanciest hotel in Davos, where many world leaders and chief executive stay.

Tina Heide, the hotel’s general manager, said that in ordinary years the hotel drafts in dozens of extra staff to cope with demand and erects 25,000 sq metres of temporary buildings on the hotel’s grounds to host 70 meeting rooms and an extra 18 event venues. The world’s TV networks also set up mini TV studios on the hotel’s roofs.

But this year the hotel has closed half its rooms, and is only employing 44 of its usual 100 staff.

Davos congress centre in early 2020.
Davos congress centre in early 2020. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

Opposite the Belvédère, Facebook usually spends several hundred thousand dollars renting land from the Kirchner Museum art gallery to build a three-storey temporary “Facebook house”.

Severin Bischof, the director of the museum, which holds one of the largest collections of paintings by the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, said the museum has enough money in its reserves to continue without Facebook’s money this year. But he said the town’s citizens should take this an opportunity to think about a future without the WEF.

“People here hadn’t thought of the possibility that the WEF would stop coming here,” he said. “Now that prospect is very concrete. Some people are missing out on a lot of revenue, and we have to think if we are too reliant on it.

“Everyone knows someone who rents out their homes for the WEF; for some the money for that one week can pay the rent for the rest of the year.”

However, the real winners usually are commercial landlords who proscribe in contracts that households must leave their homes during the WEF. “The money goes to the landlord, not the people who live in the homes, who have to leave each year,” said Bischof, who does not rent out his flat, on principle.

“During the WEF, the moral compass changes, and it is all about money,” he said. “The values that we hold dear the rest of the year are out of the window [during the WEF], and maybe that’s not good for us as a society.

“The people that come here for WEF – the multimillionaires and multi-billionaires bring their the ideology and neoliberal capitalist system. There is huge inequality in the world and they are literally the representatives of the 1%, actually, the 0.001%.

“For me personally it is quite nice not to have the WEF this year, all the construction work isn’t happening, the security isn’t here, you can walk around as a free person,” he said. “You can even smell it in the air that WEF is not here. The air smells fresher without them and their limos.”