The new trade strategy launched by the Commission in February brings engaging principles to the table that will support the EU in achieving its domestic and external policy objectives. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes this trade strategy as a way of improving market access and levelling the playing field. Alongside this, the modernisation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be the key to delivering for future generations.
Trade has been a driving force for growth and the economy. Its role has become even more important since the outbreak of the pandemic as a way of ensuring Europe's recovery. Still, the EU first needs to analyse and quantify trade changes, making a distinction between temporary and COVID-19 related changes, on the one hand, and permanent changes, on the other.
We need to have a certain approach, to be open and assertive, to improve the stakeholders' engagement with trade policy because the narrative of international trade is changing, said Timo Vuori, rapporteur of the EESC opinion on the trade policy review.
The opinion, adopted at July's plenary session, is a step forward for this strategy, which will create new opportunities to diminish risks relating to world trade and the EU economy.
It is time for Europe to put naivety aside and adopt a more assertive profile when defending EU values and trade commitments unilaterally. Where the WTO cannot act or fully deliver, the EU should be able to count on a wide range of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that reflect European principles and the international standards shared with leading and emerging economies in international trade.
As Christophe Quarez, co-rapporteur of the opinion, put it:
All of the work needs to be put in the context of multilateralism and reforming the WTO.
The EESC agrees that modernising the WTO is a top priority given its central role in delivering an effective multilateral matrix for a modern trade agenda. Therefore, the EU must lead ambitious WTO reforms by breaking taboos on social and climate aspects of trade and addressing current and upcoming challenges sustainably. To accomplish that, Member States have to engage in strategic cooperation with key trade partners on priority multilateral issues.
Trade policy that delivers for people
The EESC welcomes the trade agenda which responds to some of the stakeholder concerns raised in the public consultation. However, it lacks reflections on how to improve involvement of civil society. The Committee underlines the need for continued cooperation with civil society at national and EU level, to ensure that trade policy adds value to our daily lives.
Civil society has to become an active partner in trade policy, from shaping to monitoring trade tools and agreements. To secure the role of civil society organisations in the process, the EESC calls for the reinstatement of the expert group on FTAs which provided an unequalled and much needed deep and regular engagement on specific trade issues. Meaningful engagement with the European Parliament notably via the EESC, with a view to addressing concerns more effectively, would help ensure smoother ratification.
Furthermore, Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs) which are essential institutional monitoring pillars of modern FTAs, should be reinforced.
The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of the global trading system and those of workers in supply chains. Strengthening sustainability and resilience in global value chains (GVCs) is of paramount importance to level the playing field. The EU needs instruments to tackle corruption and environmental, labour, social and human rights infringements, such as mandatory due diligence, a new UN treaty on business and human rights, and an ILO convention on decent work.
Having learnt the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis, the EU calls for a deeper understanding of global value chains' impact on people and businesses as well as their shortcomings. Diversification is a tool for greater resilience, with proper monitoring mechanisms and adequate public procurement processes.
The EESC strongly supports the EU's active role in shaping global rules for more sustainable and fairer trade that would bring prosperity and security not only to business partners but also to countries and their people.