The new framework for free trade agreements must include civil society organisations

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With its new trade strategy, the EU will get tougher on its trading partners, giving sustainability centre stage. The EESC also firmly believes that civil society organisations and the social partners should be given a seat at the table, to ensure that the benefits emerging from this new trade policy are genuinely distributed among all participants, both in the EU and in the partner countries.

The COVID-19 crisis has had an unprecedented impact on the global economy, trade and investment, and has sparked a debate on the need to overhaul national and European trade and industrial policies.

Against this background, in February 2021, the European Commission laid out a new open, sustainable and assertive trade policy, intending to promote not only the competitiveness of European industry but also European values and principles. The EESC feels, however, that there are a number of prerequisites for the implementation of this policy.

In an own-initiative opinion adopted at the EESC March Plenary, the members and representatives of civil society organisations pointed out that a new framework for free trade and investment agreements is needed, in order to include the participation of civil society organisations and at the same time to raise public awareness.

In particular, Stefano Palmieri, EESC member and rapporteur for the opinion, highlighted that A new negotiating methodology is needed, one able to establish a new roadmap which will ensure that civil society organisations and social partners are actively involved throughout negotiations and added, This methodology must be used by both the EU and the countries forming the other party to the negotiations.

The time has come for a dual reform process

In recent years, the EESC has been critical of the various negotiation tools used by the EU, such as economic partnership agreements, due in particular to their limited transparency, their inability to enforce human and social rights effectively and their failure to guarantee a level playing field for all market players.

The EESC therefore believes that it is time to devise a new negotiating strategy, with new standards and procedures for ensuring the broad and constructive involvement of civil society and the social partners.

The first step towards this would be the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the negotiating parties. The memorandum would guarantee that both parties complete the various stages of the negotiations, would produce a roadmap and would involve civil society organisations and social partners throughout the negotiations as observers, meeting in a special "joint consultative committee of stakeholders" (JCCS).

On the other hand, the domestic advisory groups (DAGs), responsible for monitoring, evaluating and implementing the agreements, seem to demonstrate a number of shortcomings in terms of establishing criteria and clear operating rules. As a result, the political impact of the DAGs has been totally inadequate.

This being the case, the EESC considers that the DAGs need to be thoroughly reformed in order to correct these weaknesses. The opinion suggests that every agreement signed must comprise a protocol on the workings of the DAGs, establishing a sound institutional framework.

This dual reform process, with the active participation of civil society organisations and the social partners, will build on the new EU trade policy and help deliver on its objectives. This will ensure that any trade agreements concluded will contribute to a form of a sustainable, economic, social and environmental development for both parties to the negotiations: the EU and the partner countries.

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The new framework for free trade agreements must include civil society organisations