In early December, representatives of both European Commission and Parliament reflected, within the scope of two major events, on the configuration and challenges of EU trade policy. However, there was nothing spectacularly new. What does this tell us? In order to strengthen a weighty voice for employment rights, it is necessary to continue putting pressure on the Commission!


Last week, the so-called EU Trade Policy Day took place in Brussels. The objective of the event organised by the Commission was to enable an exchange between experts from EU institutions, civil society and social partners. Part of the discussions were among other the priorities of EU trade policy, taking into account the current US Government as well as the sometimes negative effects of globalisation.


Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström was playing a key role. As expected, she praised the work of her Directorate-General. She had brought to a close the difficult negotiations regarding CETA and was currently moving towards finalising a number of important trade agreements. These include in particular the agreements with Japan, Mexico and Mercosur. Malmström once more emphasised the significance of free, but rule-based trade, which, with regard to the EU, has to comply with regulations concerning labour and environmental standards.


Based on this, the panel discussed a possible leading role of the EU with regard to trade policy, as the current US Government presently does not seem to exercise its pioneering role. Bernd Lange (S&D), Chair of the Committee on International Trade (INTA) in the European Parliament, introduced the aspect of sustainable development in EU Trade Agreements. Unfortunately, however, there was none whatsoever comprehensive discussion of social and environmental standards, in form of sustainability chapters.


More time was dedicated to the issue of “Globalisation”, without, however, debating its concrete characteristics. As a result, not much light was shed on identifying alleged winners and losers. With regard to trade policy, there were three different points of views, which were discussed by one of the panels. On the one hand, one of the panel participants regarded globalisation as beneficial to all citizens. However, this had to be communicated in a better way to ensure that all would share this realisation. But there were also voices, which emphasised the negative effects of globalisation. Hence, contents had to be embedded in EU Trade Agreements, which would protect alleged losers. Finally, others were of the opinion that the design of trade policy itself had to be improved. Above all, measures for the general increase in employment had to be taken and ways had to be found to adequately respond to technological change.


Conference of the Social Democratic Group

In comparison to the Trade Policy Day of the Commission, the S&D Conference on the Future of EU Trade Policy put its focus increasingly on issues of sustainability in global trade. Together with Bernd Lange and Alessia Mosca, Gianni Pittella, Leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Group im European Parliament, clearly voiced his opinion regarding global trade: the EU had to play a pioneering role to ensure fair and rule-based trade. This would include regulations on sustainable development, transparency and an open global trade, which, however, would not turn a blind eye to injustices. In this context, discussions also touched upon the future of sustainability chapters in EU Trade Agreements.


Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary University of London presented the result of his research, as to how labour regulations in sustainability chapters may improve the working and living conditions of employees. To achieve this, it was important that in future sustainability chapters would go beyond the ILO Core Labour Standards and in doing so would ensure decent labour conditions, adequate health and safety standards and wages safeguarding the future. However, in order to implement these standards effectively, it was also important to make companies discharge their duties: it had to be possible to be able not only prosecute countries in their capacity as trade partners, but also companies if they infringed against regulations. This would be important for the adherence to minimum standards, in particular in those countries, which often do not have the required resources to monitor such adherence. Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, made it clear that free trade was not an end in itself. The EU had to use its market power to ensure that environmental standards, human and labour rights would be adhered to. In future, global trade should benefit all people and not only major corporations and banks!


Further information:

AK EUROPA: Taking a closer look at EU screening of foreign investments

AK EUROPA: European trade policy – Wrangling over the enforceability of employment rights

AK EUROPA: EU negotiations with Australia & New Zealand – AK criticism of EU trade policy remains

AK Position Paper: Non-paper of the Commission services on Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters in EU Free Trade Agreements