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European civil society representatives call for a stronger role in the monitoring of free trade agreements signed by the EU

At its January plenary session, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted an opinion on the reinforcement of the role of Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs) in monitoring the implementation of free trade agreements (FTAs) signed by the European Union. DAGs are already responsible for supervising the implementation of FTAs in the areas of sustainable development and labour standards, but the EESC wants to extend this monitoring role to include all aspects of the agreements, including the core trade provisions.

The opinion, drawn up by Alberto Mazzola, also argues that DAGs should be "advisory, consultative, institutionalised, competent to cover all provisions in the agreements, made up of a balanced membership of all three sectors, representative, responsible and have an independent role in monitoring and evaluating EU agreements". The EESC therefore wants to enhance DAGs' supervisory role by enabling them to supervise not just the implementation of FTA chapters on sustainable development but the entire agreement, in order to complement the efforts made by the European Commission to promote better implementation of future EU FTAs.

The EESC considers that civil society's participation in all kinds of agreements is vital, not only for monitoring purposes, but also to achieve the strategic aspirations embedded in them. This must be done through a single civil society participation body which comprises both sides of the agreement. Alberto Mazzola pointed out that "the EU today faces increasing demand for constructive dialogue with civil society on trade, as seen with CETA and TTIP, and DAGs are a great way to connect citizens with trade issues".

This enhanced role of DAGs should be accompanied by other provisions on the functioning of current and future DAGs. DAGs should also guarantee balanced representation of civil society interests and be able to involve and consult external stakeholders.

Financing and working methods

The opinion also includes proposals on working methods. The EESC recommends that DAGs meet at least twice a year at EU level (one face-to-face meeting plus at least one videoconference), and also proposes organising a conference of all DAG members in Brussels every year in order to pool experiences and best practices. The opinion also provides for EU DAGs to organise a hearing every year to extend this dialogue outside Brussels and reach a wider audience. As regards inter-institutional cooperation, the EESC considers that it is important for DAGs to be able to report to the Parliament and the Council and not only to the Commission, as is now the case. It also recommends that structured dialogue be organised between the EU DAGs, the Commission, the EEAS, the Parliament and the Member States.

All these proposals should be backed by appropriate financing as, in Alberto Mazzola's words, "the EESC considers that the participation of civil society in all FTAs is crucial for the strategic ambitions of the EU's external policies".

There are currently eight active DAGs with 27 EESC members, five more should be established by 2021 and more may follow in the future. The cost to the EESC of being present in DAGs is expected to double in the next three years and to triple to cover the FTAs currently being negotiated. The EESC therefore asks the EU budgetary authorities to authorise additional financing to match the Commission's budgetary forecasts for the EESC's support for DAGs.