EU trade policy needs more than just repainting the front door

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

epa08686231 Greenpeace activist Gesche Juergens speaks before protesters with banners outside of the Economy Ministry in Berlin, Germany, 21 September 2020. Protesters of various organizations demonstrated on the occasion of the Informal Meeting of Trade Ministers against climate-damaging trade agreements like the planned EU-Mercosur deal. EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN

The EU’s trade policy needs a radical overhaul following Parliament’s opposition to the EU-Mercosur treaty, write Raphael Glucksmann and Agnes Jongerius.

Raphael Glucksmann and Agnes Jongerius are MEPs in the Socialist and Democrat group

“Frenchmen, one more effort, if you want to be Republicans!” was the Marquis de Sade’s famous saying during the 1789 Revolution. The same applies to the Dutch-French non-paper on trade policy: good points are made, but a huge effort is still needed to be actually ambitious.

Last week the European Parliament stood up by saying no to the EU-Mercosur treaty. Research from Greenpeace showed that this was not an exaggeration as it has no climate protection and undermines democracy. Now the question is: How do we want to shape the EU trade policy of the future?

Just like the non-paper, we want trade to foster sustainable development. But we do not think a mere notification mechanism, nor an incentive will help. We believe that when it comes to our closest trade partners, upholding core principles should come first; not second. It is a question of determination and leverage.

The true debate is somewhere else: we need binding legislations with a state-to-state mechanism that controls the implementation of the trade and sustainable development chapters. Where civil society has the same access as the investors. Where independent experts on labour, environment and human right have a right to speak, and to vote. Where sanctions are possible. In a word, where there is justice and equality. This requires us to remodel our trade policy by the architecture of trade deals, not just repainting the front door.

When it comes to human rights due diligence the Ministers talk about a mixture between mandatory and voluntarily mechanism. With this we cannot guarantee that some products are made by neither child labour or China Uyghurs’ forced labour. Due diligence is what may, if adequately designed and implemented, prevent us from being complicit of gross human, social or environmental rights violations. The Ministers’ answer is a step back even from the vision exposed by the liberal Commissioner Didier Reynders. Which makes the two parties at odds on the principle of the law: where the French government has a mandatory law, the Dutch government have only ever pursued voluntarily initiatives.  We urgently need a mandatory, efficient due diligence mechanism to stop relying on big companies “good faith”. Sometimes changes have to be imposed through law.

Ministers who are truly committed to fair, sustainable trade would have suggested that all mandates of ongoing negotiations of trade agreements should be renegotiated. Thereby starting a new sustainable trade narrative.

We cannot seriously discuss the EU-Mercosur trade agreement that has a mandate from 1999. It has an old-fashioned mandate from last century. It comes from a time where the Paris agreement did not exist, let alone the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs). The only way to ensure that the Paris treaty, the ILO conventions, international human rights standards are central to any trade agreement is by taking a stand. We want all negotiating mandates to be renegotiated to a modern standard, thereby choosing for a new sustainable trade future. Isn’t this precisely what civil societies and parliaments around the EU are asking for, louder over time?

It is a pity that France and the Netherlands only comes late to the party. We could have been much quicker in our progress for a sustainable trade future if they actually had the nerve to commit. To set a global standard, like the EU did with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).  This non-paper could have been an opportunity to offer a whole new vision. It did not. It is now up to the Parliament to shape and promote it.

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