Future of the EU trade policy needs to be open, fair, inclusive and sustainable

(Source: European Economic and Social Committee)

In a plenary debate on the future of EU trade policy in a changing global reality, the EESC stressed that open, fair, inclusive and sustainable trade is the only trade that will deliver a resilient recovery and bring prosperity to business and people. It also acknowledged the key role of the World Trade Organisation towards this effort.

The global trade picture shows that recovery remains heterogeneous. According to recent WTO statistics, an increase of 45% in merchandise trade in the second quarter of 2021 was noted and followed by a 9% decrease in trade services in the first quarter of 2021, due to weaknesses in travel facilities.

But as EESC president, Christa Schweng commented: “Trade is more than statistics. International trade should be free, fair, sustainable and predictable. It’s vital for our business and people. Sustainable trade is the only trade that will deliver a resilient and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The next couple of years are going to make, or break, the system and this is why trade is on top of our agenda.”

At its October plenary session, the European Economic and Social Committee hosted Ambassador Jean-Marie Paugam, Deputy Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to exchange views and discuss the future and the sustainability of the international trade system.

The EESC has been very active on this front and contributed to the debate with several opinions, calling for a “new multilateral matrix” that would inspire greater consistency in international organisations, new cooperating frames in trade and investment aligned with social, environmental and human needs.

The pandemic hit at a difficult time and added other layers of complexity when the WTO had to deal with the dispute settlement blockage, the US withdrawal and multilateralism experiencing fatigue.

However, Mr. Paugam was positive that the international trading system had proven its resilience and usefulness in the face of the pandemic. “At the start, we witnessed a proliferation of restrictive measures to trade, but quite quickly the states chose the path of cooperation and facilitation”.

He set as a priority the restoration of trust in the system which for a long time had been undermined by many stakeholders and states. “What we must first rebuild is the minimum level of trust, as without it, no negotiation can take place”, adding emphatically that the most precious asset at the WTO was “non aes sed fides”: not money but trust.

In the own-initiative opinion Next Generation Trade and Sustainable Development-Reviewing the 15-point action plan, linked with the debate and adopted at the plenary session, the EESC aims to ensure that this time the message for a “values-based trade agenda” is clearly set out as an integral part of the EU Trade strategy. A fresh take starts with breaking down the silos, including a more structured and collaborative interaction with all the players involved.

The rapporteur of the opinion, Tanja Buzek, specifically underlined that labour and environmental chapters are not living up fully to their legally binding commitments. “We propose an ambitious review, featuring a revamped sanctionable enforcement approach with stronger civil society monitoring, using innovative instruments and enhancing the leverage for trade and sustainable development chapters (TSD)”.

EU and European Civil Society should be actively involved because as Ms. Buzek put it: “There is no sustainability without civil society”.

Ms. Schweng concluded by saying that, “The “”active involvement and buy-in from organised civil society, in all its components is a core element of a sustainable trading system that delivers for people”.

The Trade and Sustainable Development conference in April 2022 will be a great opportunity for organised civil society to take stock of the progresses made at the WTO level and on the EU trade strategy with the review of the 15-point action plan.

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