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Too Complex or Too Ambitious?

Leopoldo Biffi

1. Introduction

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1The late 2000s represented a phase of forward-looking reform for the trade policy of the European Union (EU). A European “possibility space” arose whereby Treaty of Lisbon reforms (2009) intertwined with policy strategies such as “Global Europe,” calling for greater proactiveness in the conclusion of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) (European Commission 2006). However, the legacy of Global Europe and Lisbon has also been accompanied by an unprecedented contentiousness of trade issues in EU politics. Trade negotiations such as the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) have been at the centre of vocal debates going beyond narrow economic arguments, and often challenging the legitimacy of the Common Commercial Policy (CCP) tout court. Thus, policy domains such as the environment, sustainability, social rights, going beyond strictly economic paradigms, have come to pose key political challenges to one of the “most successful” external dimensions of European integration.

2 Against this background, the research focuses specifically on the enforcement of FTAs concluded by the European Commission. We enquire into what domestic political obstacles confront the Commission in view of the ratification and implementation of negotiated FTAs. Further, we look at how the Commission addresses these obstacles and what policy dynamics can aid such an endeavour. We argue that civil society has emerged as an increasingly pivotal veto player in EU trade policy, by means of the monitoring and lobbying functions it exercises in the context of the CCP. EU-based NGOs, trade unions, and consumer organisations have made their voices heard at multiple levels, from the Commission to the European Parliament (EP) and national capitals. In so doing, they have often translated their political opposition into formal requests, red lines, or threatened vetoes that, more often than not, have pushed the Commission to reconsider the terms of negotiated FTAs, to implement safeguards, or even to abandon initial policy paths. In this light, the prominence EU advocates have acquired during the negotiation and above all ratification of EU FTAs begs for greater analytical attention. Advocacy campaigns, we suggest, have gained leverage as a function of the high salience of the trade-related issues they focus on, such as sustainable development (TSD), labour rights, or food safety. The research further argues that Commission responses to the lobbying exercised by these actors have taken place on an ad hoc basis, and namely when advocacy requests were endorsed by official-level veto players like the EP, member governments, or national parliaments in charge of ratification. In other words, the demands of civil-society organisations have been implemented when these actors were able to leverage the credible prospect of a veto, by successfully persuading EU official actors to draw red lines. Elaborating on these dynamics, the analysis also focuses on policy mechanisms arising more narrowly during the provisional enforcement of EU mixed FTAs, when advocacy can in principle extend veto-playing until a text is de jure ratified by all Member States. Departing from a considerable part of the literature, we suggest that the implementation of provisionally enforced mixed FTAs poses no extraordinary threats to the Commission in view of ratification. That is a function of lock-in dynamics. On the one hand, Member States, caught in a “joint decision trap,” will avoid a national parliamentary veto putting an end to a unanimous Council decision (Scharpf 2006). On the other hand, the provisional enforcement of an FTA offers civil-society advocates the opportunity to be involved in implementation at several levels, through advisory groups and monitoring panels granting them a privileged lobbying position. This arguably incentivises their participation in a trade regime, rather than a mobilisation in favour of a veto. Thus, provisional enforcement emerges as the primary strategic objective for the Commission in the context of mixed agreements. In this light, we also seek to reconsider the role of veto players in trade policy, conceiving them as shapers rather than mere “sinkers” of given FTAs (Allee and Elsig 2017). Overall, drawing attention to the role played by civil society in EU trade policymaking emerges as a novelty in the field, which has largely regarded trade as a technical affair for bureaucrats or, at most, special business interests (De Ville and Siles-Brügge 2016; Dür and Zimmermann 2007). Notably, civil society can be expected to inform a more consistent inclusion of binding social, environmental, and sustainability provisions in future EU FTAs, in the guise of what has already happened with human rights conditionality.

3 With the aim of corroborating the above arguments, the presentation of the research proceeds as follows. Chapter II runs a review of recent literature focusing on the key challenges of post-Lisbon EU trade policy, highlighting outstanding theoretical gaps and identifying the specific analytical angle of our work. Chapters III, IV, and V constitute the theoretical framework of the research, and formulate three hypotheses guiding our empirical observations (H1, H2, H3). In chapter III, we explore the causal link existing between the domestic salience of a given trade policy domain and the political ratification obstacles (PROs) posed to EU FTAs as a result (H1). In chapter IV, we focus on the conditions on which advocacy veto players can compel the Commission to revise the terms of an FTA in order not to incur a domestic veto (H2). Chapter V looks specifically at EU mixed FTAs, enquiring into how their provisional enforcement can elicit lock-in dynamics lowering the odds of a veto arising during national-level ratification (H3). A detailed overview of the operationalisation, design, and methodology guiding our empirical analysis is provided in chapter VI. We also acknowledge potential methodological limitations, considering questions of validity and measurement. Chapter VII and VIII constitute the analytical bulk of the research, discussing empirical findings over the three above hypotheses. Specifically, chapter VII discusses in depth a number of cases related to H1 and H2, looking at how PROs arise and the conditions on which they can compel the Commission to ex post revise the terms of negotiated FTAs. Chapter VIII focuses specifically on the CETA’s provisional enforcement, making a preliminary assessment of how related lock-in dynamics arising both at an official Member-State level and amid advocacy interest groups can de facto smooth away potential vetoes. Chapter IX concludes, restating our overarching arguments in the light of empirical results. It also identifies future research avenues along which the preliminary findings of this research could be further explored and elaborated upon.


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