The Commission is setting a brisk pace for already started and future trade agreements. If the Commission has its way, some agreements should be concluded before the end of the year - hence leaving much possibilities for civil society involvement.
The free trade agreement with Japan is nearing conclusion; agreements with Mexico and the Mercosur States are to be finalised before the end of the year. Negotiations with Indonesia, Tunisia, the Philippines and Myanmar are pushed forward; one hopes to commence the currently paused talks with Malaysia soon; with regard to Australia, New Zealand and Chile, the Commission is currently preparing a negotiation mandate, which shall be adopted by the Council and concerning the rather controversial agreement with Turkey the Commission is also waiting for a decision of the Council on a negotiation mandate. The Agreement with Canada (CETA), which was approved by the European Parliament in February, will come into preliminary force, after the Canadian institutions have now given their blessing. The Commission was not willing to verbalise a more exact date of the CETA-application as the last texts required were currently exchanged and completed.
Trump and his still very unclear foreign trade policy are currently creating favourable framework conditions for the EU to drive forward agreements with other countries. This is also seen as a step against protectionism, as the Commission does not tire to point out. A globalised and open world would need “free and fair trade”, built on the international framework conditions of the WTO, said EU Trade Commissioner Malmström at the Civil Society Dialogue and in the European Parliament's International Trade Committee, both of which took place this week.
However, how fair is the EU’s foreign trade in reality? This question arises time and again not only in view of missing sanction possibilities for infringements against labour and environmental standards. A Study of Warwick University shows that sustainability chapters often only play a minor role in negotiations. Apart from that, the planned civil society involvement structures (so-called Domestic Advisory Groups und bi-regional Civil Society Forum) to monitor labour standards in partner countries are often underfunded, only take place in irregular intervals, have little influence and participants are not aware of their role.
Civil society involvement is a double-edged sword at EU level. On the one hand, representatives of different interest groups are listened to and are thus able to refer to the missing establishment and the need for the inclusion of sanctions of comprehensive and adequate social and environmental standards and to demand their implementation. It is also possible to criticise investment courts, which grant investors privileged rights vis-à-vis states and civil society. However, on the other hand, meetings between civil society and Commission also leave room for the interests of individual industries, whose comments and criticism, compared to suggestions of representatives of workers and the environment get significantly more frequently a chance to speak, as LobbyControl at the Civil Society Dialogue on 29th May remarked. In general, business lobbyists still enjoy better access to the Commission.
Hence, one can only hope that the announced discussion paper on the sustainability chapters, which according to Malmström is to be completed by the end of the year, carries out a critical evaluation and includes sanctions for the non-compliance with labour and social standards as well as enforceable civil society involvement structures. In particular, developments have to be closely monitored against the background of the ECJ judgement, which was published on 16th May on competencies of the EU concerning the trade sector and (surprisingly) also contains the complete sustainability chapters. The draft reports on value-added chains and their impact as well as on the more comprehensive consideration of the gender dimension of trade agreements, which are currently discussed by the European Parliament, can set an important sign for a regulated free trade, in case they achieve their ambitious objectives. Only then a step towards an active shaping of globalisation and a truly fair trade can be taken.