In February 2018, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström unveiled the Commission's 15-point action plan to make EU trade and sustainable development (TSD) chapters more effective back. Unfortunately, the European Parliament (EP) and the EESC did not have time to feed into it properly, causing some frustrations. Since then, the EESC has asked constantly for the integration of more powerful Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters and their effective implementation and enforcement, feeling the 15-point action plan was not delivering. Appearing in front of the EP INTA Committee for his hearing, Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis announced that the Commission would bring forward the review of the 15-point action plan to 2021 (initially planned for 2023), underpinned by a public consultation and a comparative study on TSD enforcement undertaken by other trade partners. This own-initiative opinion aims to ensure that, this time, the EESC's message is clearly set out to shape the new action plan/strategy.
Objective: By integrating TSD chapters, the EU highlights its commitment to a "values-based trade agenda", which fosters economic, social, and environmental development simultaneously. Tackling non-compliance and fostering the implementation of TSD commitments is crucial to achieving high labour and sustainability standards through trade tools. Yet, the current model has so far been unsuccessful in generating significant sustainability improvements. Despite some EU initiatives to bring sustainability to the center of trade ambitions, the approach to TSD is still seen as "lacking teeth" and missing out on exploring innovative "out of the box thinking".
Since the 2018 action plan, the trade world has moved on. The Green New Deal has become an overarching policy goal, also for the EU’s trade agenda. More and more institutional players like the EP and Member States have intensified their calls for ambitious TSD reform. The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed trade flows in an unprecedented manner unveiling major problems in global supply and value chains that also link to non-compliance with TSD commitments. The first ever TSD related dispute settlement case (South Korea) has set interesting precedents and continues to be a test case for enforceability. Meanwhile, the newly created EU Chief Trade Enforcement Officer (CTEO) comes with the promess of stronger instruments, and EU trade partners like Canada and the U.S. explore new TSD enforcement paths in their own trade relations.
Against this background and building on previous cutting-edge EESC work, the own-initiative opinion sets out to develop an innovative and up-to-date toolbox for trade, to deliver on the EU's sustainable development values: a next generation TSD. The opinion would aim for a comprehensive and cohesive response to the review, focusing particularly on:
- policy instruments providing additional leverage to TSD implementation;
- the institutional setting needed for effective enforcement and enforceability of TSD commitments taking a comparative view; and
- an empowering framework for civil society involvement, notably via the Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs)