Not so long ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the question would never have arisen as the answer was obvious: companies had the nationality of their location. A company’s nationality expressed a system of mutually beneficial exchanges:

A national registration gave companies a cradle with the necessary resources to come into existence, to grow, to be protected; in return, their successes enriched the nation with the goods they produced, the jobs they provided, and the social protection that they financed. National companies fuelled the solidarity that makes a nation, and their success was a source of national pride.

With globalisation, things have changed. The notion arose that companies, at least the largest ones, should free themselves from a national affiliation that was no longer so much an asset as a hindrance: a company ought to consider its country of origin, like other locations, from the point of view of its competitiveness. The company would no longer be so much accountable to the nation that gave it birth as to its multiple, dispersed, multinational shareholders. All kinds of “optimisation” – tax optimisation, territorial optimisation – became possible. Better still, the concept that all the privileges, aid and other subsidies that a company might receive from its country of origin should be abolished was becoming a standard of international trade. The company’s territory became virtual: that of its markets, where the best deals are made. And so the company would no longer be accountable to any nation, but to its shareholders of many nationalities.

But isn’t this view about to become obsolete? First, because this ideology of a stateless company never came to be universally shared. For the United States and for China, for example, companies do have a nationality, especially when they are foreign and the aim is to weaken, plunder or absorb them. The WTO has not so much abolished trade wars as modified the rules while disarming a number of players. It is remarkable that in the recent statement of the Business Roundtable, at which America’s top executives redefine the “purpose” of their companies, they claimed unashamedly to be working for the United States. Another consideration is that in a context marked by the rise of protectionism and the resurgence of mercantilism, a company without a nationality becomes an easy prey.

The fact therefore remains that companies have a nationality, whether they like it or not. The question then arises as to whether their leaders should make this de facto obligation one of their claims. There is a lot of talk about the “raison d’être” of companies, referring to the fact that they have a social and societal responsibility. But if a company does not take on the concrete face of a nation, will this responsibility not be condemned to being a fleeting abstraction? For a company, should not the claim of having a “social responsibility” start with re-appropriating the concept of nationality?

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Highlights of the 18 December 2019 Meeting