This article is part of our special report Putting sustainability at the heart of the EU’s trade agenda.
EU lawmakers must put sustainability at the heart of the bloc’s trade policy or risk losing public support for it, says Bernd Lange. And that means having civil society at its heart, adds the German lawmaker who chairs the European Parliament’s International Trade committee.
“Trade is really important for the EU. One out of seven jobs is dependent on trade. But there are a lot of concerns among civil society about the result of trade policy regarding sustainability and increased competition and if we can’t really give an answer to those concerns then we will lose public support for trade policy,” says Lange, who has chaired his committee, one of the most influential in the Parliament, since 2014.
The EU’s trade agenda has been stalled in recent years by growing public scepticism that proposed agreements with the likes of the United States, Canada and South American countries will either benefit corporations or will lead to lower environmental or social standards.
However, Lange says that provisions on such standards have gradually increased.
“There’s no doubt that if you look at EU trade policy of the last fifteen years you can see that step by step there has been improvement,” says Lange, though he concedes that addressing sustainability and social standards in trade agreements “is not in the heart of some traditional trade policy officers inside the European Commission”.
“I guess they have recognised that that it is necessary to stabilise modern trade policy, otherwise we will have no chance of getting any trade policy measures through Parliament and acceptance from the public,” he adds.
Lange, together with other lawmakers, wants to strengthen the role of domestic advisory groups (DAGs), which connect citizens with trade issues and are tasked with providing advice on all aspects of EU trade agreements.
“It’s very important to have the involvement of civil society. At the end of the day, trade policy has to benefit people on the ground and not single companies. This was the idea behind establishing the domestic advisory groups, and step by step we are learning about how to improve the possibilities.” says Lange.
Measures to help ensure that labour and other human rights are respected in countries with whom the EU has trade agreements form part of the Commission’s EU trade strategy document tabled in May.
They include the promise of new EU legislation on corporate governance and accountability and a law to ensure that products contributing to deforestation cannot be imported in Europe.
The Commission’s trade strategy also proposes the appointment of a chief enforcement officer to deal with complaints in case of violation of labour and other human rights, or environmental abuses happening in trading partner countries.
“I think it’s welcome and it’s really important to have one person or body to whom you can go with your concerns and problems, as well as the access to market platform. We have the guarantee that each case will get a follow up and the possibility of investigation,” says Lange of the enforcement officer post.
“We must make sure that the phrase ‘value based trade policy’ is not just a phrase.”
He argues that DAGs should have the right to make claims and also to demand government consultation in a binding form.
DAG representatives should also be invited to hold regular exchanges of views with the INTA committee.
Lange says that despite facing barriers in many countries without a tradition of social dialogue the DAGs are “already doing a good job”.
“In many countries there are some developments in the direction of a social dialogue as we know it here in Europe,” he adds.
Concerns have also been expressed that the DAGs in some countries lack the resources to do their job.
“We should put some money on the table to finance the possibilities for civil society in these countries, and the frequency of meetings,” says Lange, who adds that his committee recently discussed with the Commission the need to strengthen the role of EU delegations in supporting the work of DAGs.
However, there is a gap when it comes to enforcement and imposing remedies in cases where companies and governments are breaching the standards set out in trade pacts.
Lange has set out his own proposals for a revised model chapter with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung that would cover sanctions and compensation procedures.
“My proposal was to set compensation for victims. Now we are reflecting more on the idea of company–based compensation,” Lange tells EURACTIV.
“By the end of the year, we will have an understanding with the Commission on what this enforcement process will look like in the future.”
There has been pushback among some countries against the EU’s planned carbon adjustment mechanism, with a number of African states arguing that the proposed levy would hit them disproportionately despite the fact that they are responsible for much lower carbon emissions than Europe.
“Yes, we also have to be fair. The obligations in the Paris agreement are different for the EU and, for example, Morocco and Tunisia, and that affects the carbon border mechanism. At international level we have to be clear and not give the picture that we are being protective,” said Lange.
However, he is clear that enforcing labour and environmental standards is ”not just a European idea or imperialistic European view”, pointing out that most countries across the world signed up to the UN sustainable development goals, the International Labour Organisations core labour standards, UN environment standards, and the Paris climate agreement.
“These are universal standards. We are putting our finger on the commitments that countries gave. We want full implementation of these commitments; no more, no less”.