Recent trade agreements have shown the need to bring EU trade policy closer to its citizens

The Section for External Relations of the European Economic and Social Committee discuss how to involve civil society with the EU Member States when ratifying trade agreements

The European Union is among the largest economic powers in the world, number one in exports of manufactured goods, services, agricultural products, ahead of both the United States and Brazil. However, in recent years, EU trade policy, notably via the increased prevalence of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs),  has become a real issue for debate for civil society at national level, given that trade agreements are promoters of growth and jobs but should also serve as a tool for reflecting and conveying high standards for social, environmental and consumer protection. In this regard the Section for External Relations (REX) of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) organised a hearing on consensus and transparency in trade agreements, which took place on 14 June in Brussels.

The EESC has significant experience in the domain of EU trade policy to be able to address both organised civil society organisations' and citizens' concerns. As reminded during the debate, all recently negotiated and implemented EU "new generation" free trade agreements include among others, a Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapter and the EESC takes an active part in the implementation of these agreements, in particular regarding the civil society advisory mechanisms. The EESC remains committed to playing this role.

Debate on trade still lacks citizens' involvement

The new generation of FTAs such as the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic Agreement (CETA) or the negotiations of the EU-US Transatlantic Partnership Agreement (TTIP) which have previously led to large protests in many Member States, have demonstrated that civil society is very sensitive to aspects potentially regulated or indirectly affected by FTAs.

EU Member States have different existing national structures, consultation methods, as well as ratification processes, however, citizens do not always seem to know how their voices could be heard in national debates, especially on trade policies, said the President of the REX Section Dilyana Slavova in her opening speech.

Alberto Mazzola, President of the International Trade Follow-up Committee at the EESC, emphasised that 31 million jobs in Europe depended on exports to non-EU countries; that is 67 % more than in the mid-1990s. He promised that the EESC, as the body representing civil society at European level, will continue to follow developments in the EU trade policy, including ongoing negotiations, and the debate on threats to the multilateralism system and WTO developments.

The EESC member Andrés Barcelo Delgado, who was a speaker on one of the panels, noted that the European market was the most open market in the world and highlighted that there was a necessary balance to be kept between negotiations on the one hand and transparency on the other.

Drastic transformation in transparency

Representatives of civil society at the hearing agreed that a lot had been done to create transparency in trade agreements in recent years.

Before, trade was “a darling subject” of the trade experts only, said Cécile Toubeau, Director, Better Trade and Regulation from Transport & Environment, adding that today experts from other fields can participate in the process of trade agreement negotiations  because in the end it is having a big impact on other areas.

However, participants at the hearing stressed that civil society still sees room for improvement.

We are witnessing a drastic transformation regarding transparency, however there should be a dedicated chapter for consumers in the trade agreements, ensuring that the negotiators would not forget consumer interests, said Léa Auffret, Senior Trade Policy Officer representing the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).

Peter Sandler, Director, DG Trade from the European Commission emphasised that the Commission sought to find the common European interest as early as possible, also when it came to trade agreements: It would be ridiculous if it were only at the moment when agreements are presented for ratification, that national parliaments discovered what has been negotiated. Mr Sandler acknowledged that the TTIP negotiations have proven that trade agreements should have a strong “public visibility element.”

Seeking to improve the effectiveness of EU trade, the Commission has recently identified 15 action points organised under four headings: Working Together; Enabling Civil Society; Delivering; and Communicating and Transparency.

Work organisation