Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team
The impacts of trade liberalisation are wide ranging covering not just the economic sectors where business is done, but the social and environmental consequences which result through increased or decreased production, supply chain demands and distribution logistics. It is therefore extremely disturbing to read the admission of the European Commission that “there is ample evidence that the impacts of EU trade agreements on global biodiversity have contributed to net negative rather than positive consequences”.
At the start, when the European Commission begins to negotiate Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) it uses a tool called a Sustainable Impact Assessment (SIA) to review the potential impacts that any agreement may have both in the third country and in the European Union. This in turn strengthens the Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters of each trade agreement, something the European Parliament is specifically protective over. In light of recent climate concerns the Commission is now proposing to extend the SIA methodology to include nature’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Ultimately, this proposal by the Commission could constitute a serious improvement and significant strengthening of the SIA mechanisms.
The purpose of a Sustainable Impact Assessment is to present a transparent and robust assessment of any potential repercussions of trade. However, as Free Trade Agreements are negotiated in secret, and civil society from either side of the negotiations rarely afforded the opportunity to meet with the negotiators, these proposals, although widely welcomed for their analysis of the implications of trade impacts, are little more than a tick box exercise. Neither can they be challenged, nor are they sufficiently included in the negotiation process.
In the main, SIAs are conducted to assess the negative impacts of FTAs in the third country. This in turn should result in safeguard measures being placed in the final Agreement to enable both sides to cease trade if there are negative impacts. Biodiversity and ecosystems are interactions at the community levels and this requires the engagement of experts, stakeholders and civil society organisations to bring forward the true nature of any consequences resulting from increased or decreased trade. Alongside the voice of the people, and especially where significant biodiversity implications are identified, quantified analysis and data collection are also required but getting the concerns of these stakeholders to the relevant authorities in Brussels at a time when it really matters, is not so easy.
Recommendations from the Commission to improve SIAs and strengthen TSD chapters included in FTAs, include listing “concrete and specific safeguards” to address each of the negative impacts identified. Nevertheless, without “effective implementation”, a term used without any legal base by the Commission, such safeguards are worthless and nothing more than nice words to appease civil society in third countries. Furthermore, without financial resource, experts, NGOs, consumers and communities in third countries are unable to undertake the monitoring required, nor understand the procedure to enforce a safeguard mechanism. The Commission is well aware of this and in a recent study highlighted that “the effectiveness of the rule-based measures contained in TSD chapters depends to a large extent on the rigour of environmental governance in trade partner countries, in particular implementation and enforcement”. By blaming the third country for weak governance, and thereby absolving itself of any responsibility, is not the answer. The European Union should first be ensuring that all the necessary International Conventions are in place and adhered to before even beginning a trade agreement. This would act as a strong lever towards better governance and sustainability by the third country.
Any mechanism to increase transparency and strengthen Europe’s commitment to biodiversity, the environment and sustainability of the planet is warmly welcomed but it must come with real action and commitment to drive change, which will require finance, resource and the engagement of civil society in Europe and third countries. This must also include capacity building to share the knowledge of how to trigger the cessation of trade in the case of adverse impacts.
Beyond making trade negations more transparent, opening channels of communication, monitoring, assessing and recording such communications are the only means of proof that the European Union is taking its due diligence seriously, and genuinely attempting to develop transparent trade procedures which benefit both sides.