Putting fairness at the core of EU trade policy

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

EU legislators approved a long-waited set of rules to tackle unfair trade practices just a year ago, fixing one of the major backlogs of the entire EU legal framework on foodstuffs. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

How can the EU’s new trade policy have fairness at its core? Following the end of the public consultation on the new policy, a cross-party group of MEPs make their suggestions.

This piece is signed by Bernd Lange, Udo Bullmann, Martin Hojsik, Anna Cavazzini, Ernest Urtasun, Aurore Lalucq, Martin Hausling, Margarida Marques, Inmaculada Rodrigueze-Pinero, Miguel Urban Crespo, Delara Burkhardt, Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, Kathleen Van Brempt. Samira Rafaela, Franc Bogovic, Saskia Bricmont, Helmut Scholz, Agnes Jongerius.

“A progressive and inclusive trade policy is a very important first step, but concrete actions by local authorities and active citizens is how change starts on the ground.” This is what the European Commission’s Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said last month on the occasion of the EU Cities for Fair and Ethical Trade Award.

Following the end of the public consultation on the new EU Trade Policy yesterday, this is the perfect moment for reflection. How can the EU turn these words into policy and put forward a trade agenda that supports fair and ethical trade initiatives and practices both at overarching policy level as well as on the ground?

COVID-19 as a catalyst for a new trade agenda that serves our values and achieves our commitments

COVID-19 has made it clear that we cannot continue with ‘business as usual’. European supply chains are rife with inequalities and human rights violations and pose a supply-side risk due to their fragile set-up.

The people who grow our food, and their communities; those who sew our clothes or those who manufacture our IT devises, have been paying an intolerable price for our irresponsible business practices for too long. This is not sustainable, and it certainly is not fair.

So let the pandemic serve as the long-awaited tipping point for the EU to put in place a trade agenda that supports the poorest, and creates strong supply chains that can withstand future disruptions. We are in a climate, health and economic crisis, and all EU policies must reflect this reality.

This is why MEPs from the cross-party Fair Trade Working Group have written a letter to Executive Vice President Dombrovskis calling for an EU trade strategy that not only includes policy measures and binding sustainability regulations for corporations, but also supports bottom-up initiatives to promote Fair Trade.

Because indeed, EU Trade Policy could do a better job in reflecting fair trade objectives, both at the level of laws and policies as well as by very specific actions.

Integrating Fair Trade into the new policy framework

On a general level trade policy would benefit from having more social and solidarity organizations operating in the economy. Fair Trade organisations are already structured in this way: they include workers, farmers, and suppliers at the core of the decision making processes, and consequently favour their interests.

Engaging such organisations more would help us address challenges such as the ones we are facing now.

Second, we need to continue working on due diligence. Trade that is fair and works for everyone in the supply chain means looking at what has failed people and the planet in how we normally do business, and tackling the root causes of the problem.

We need a mandatory system that identifies and tackles human rights and environmental standards violations along the entire supply chain. A system that has teeth and offers victims the possibility to hold those who break the rules to account.

Third, Fair Trade initiatives should be promoted in EU programmes which involve SMEs. Or think of Erasmus for example. Fair Trade is about gender, human rights, climate, and more. So the trade agenda should integrate Fair Trade initiatives into other EU action plans, such as the EU action plan on gender equality.

Fourth, Fair Trade initiatives should also be a priority objective in the implementation of trade and sustainable development chapters in trade agreements. These can contribute to address many of the root causes of human rights and environmental abuses, which are often linked to an unfair distribution of value.

Likewise, EU delegations in third countries should be stimulated and enabled to promote Fair Trade projects, and offered guidelines clarifying the ways in which they are expected to do so.

Fifth, these ideas can also be translated into very specific actions. Think of knowledge sharing at schools and universities, and the inclusion of Fair Trade criteria in the future EU mandatory sustainable food public procurement criteria and the new Farm to Fork EU school procurement schemes.

To conclude, fair trade should not be a footnote in our policy agenda. Only by addressing the current systemic flaws from all sides – through citizen action, member state initiatives and cross-sectoral EU policy – the Commission can begin to effectively close the gaps between the current system, and the vision laid out in the EU Green Deal.

As the public consultation for the new EU Trade Strategy has been closed, we hope and demand a future for trade that puts fairness, sustainability and resilience at its heart. Moving forward, supporting the most disadvantaged people in our supply chains is not a nice-to-have; it is the bare minimum requirement for resilient and sustainable EU trade.

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