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Too Complex or Too Ambitious?

Leopoldo Biffi

3. Political Ratification Obstacles (PROs)

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1In view of ratification, the deep and comprehensive nature of new-generation FTAs combines with intricate enforcement mechanisms at the EU level. Specifically, two types of obstacles can be distinguished: i) formal/legislative ratification obstacles and ii) political ratification obstacles (PROs). The former are here conceived in terms of the lengthy and multi-level ratification procedures EU FTAs need to go through. These relate to both EP consent, in addition to Council approval, and, in the case of mixed agreements, national ratification procedures by Member States (Craig and De Búrca 2015: 133). On the other hand, political ratification obstacles (PROs) refer to domestic opposition from EU and national actors (be they official or private ones) against the content and provisions of an FTA. In this research, our analysis will focus in particular on PROs.

2Our enquiry into the origins of PROs takes Putnam (1988) as its fundamental point of departure. Namely, it holds that (trade) diplomacy qualifies as a matter of domestic politics. FTAs which fail to achieve a “win-set,” by not striking an adequate balance between bargaining needs and constituents’ interests, will likely spark PROs putting the ratification of an agreement in jeopardy. Against this background, we seek to complement traditional IR emphasis on two-level games with public policy’s in-depth enquiry into the varying nature of domestic political debates and public contestation. To that end, a helpful guide to our analysis is Culpepper’s (2010) distinction between the open contestation of given policy measures, characteristic of partisan debates that are salient to median voters, and the “quiet politics” more common amid business interest groups engaging in technical lobbying (4). In this light, enquiring into the link between political salience and PROs across different trade policy domains allows us not simply to conclude on which trade sectors are associated with more or less domestic contestation, but also to draw conclusions as to the nature of debates and the types of domestic veto players involved when contestation is (or is not) observed. From a public-management perspective, this can help refine our understanding of the nature of domestic opposition confronting the Commission in its striving for an ambitious and credible external trade policy.

Defining PROs

3We conceive political ratification obstacles (PROs) as encompassing threatened vetoes, opposition and campaigning against specific terms of a negotiated FTA, manifested by both EU official actors in charge of ratification and by private stakeholders and civil society. We regard PROs as a function of salience, the latter conceived “as the extent to which actors experience a utility loss from the occurrence of decision outcomes that differ from the decision outcomes they most favour” (Thomson and Stokman 2006: 41-42; see also Jančić 2016). In relying on this definition, we hold a rationalist conception of EU constituents, as actors determined to have their economic or political interests maximised. Thus, PROs can be conceived as a function of the utility loss determined by the mismatch between constituent interests and the provisions of a negotiated FTA. The higher the salience of a trade-related issue, ceteris paribus, the stronger the PROs resulting from an FTA’s failure to meet domestic preferences.

  • 1 The acronym ACEA stands for Association des constructeurs européens d’automobiles.

4PROs do not require leveraging formal veto powers, and can be posed both by official-level actors in charge of ratification – i.e. the Council, the EP, and national parliaments – and by private actors mobilising against specific terms of an agreement. Veto players are traditionally conceived in the former sense (Tsebelis 1995, 2011; Tsebelis and Yataganas 2002). We stress how this notion should be extended to private interest groups ranging from business organisations to advocacy NGOs and trade unions, lobbying to shape the position of official-level veto players (Baldwin 1993; Mayer 1992; Putnam 1988). Relevant instances of this can be found in private lobbying and advocacy around the European Parliament (EP), the latter enjoying veto powers when it comes to EU trade (Rasmussen 2015). In the case of the EU-South Korea FTA (KOREU), for instance, Korean duty-drawbacks on cheap car components sparked concerns amid EU small-to-medium car producers, represented by the organisation ACEA1 (Elsig and Dupont 2012). The car sector was able to activate EP veto-playing, as MEPs leveraged their ratification powers to request the Commission to implement a number of safeguards (European Parliament 2011).

5PROs acquire particular prominence when they are mobilised in the context of broad public debates going beyond technical exchanges amid interest groups. As Culpepper (2010) argues, political contestation can be conceived as a function of the types of rules a given policy encompasses (formal vs. informal rules), and of the degree of salience a given issue possesses in the eyes of the public. In EU FTAs, “when rules are laws and voters are interested in the outcomes, partisan contestation is the likely mode of political interaction” (181). That was the case with civil-society contestation during TTIP and CETA negotiations, which pushed the Commission to replace the investment-protection investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism with an investment court system (ICS). What had begun as a technical negotiation turned into a matter of rule of law and regulatory sovereignty, pushing the EP to formally request the Commission to exclude ISDS from any forthcoming FTA (European Parliament 2015).

6Overall, the increased depth and scope of post-Lisbon FTAs increases – ceteris paribus – the political stakes in given provisions, and therefore the number of items potentially facing politicisation. That does not necessarily impact on the lengthiness of domestic ratification debates, but it does impact on their scope, intricacy, and outcome. Discussions can be broad and politicised, or conversely technical and quiet. In the former scenario, manifestations of salience contribute to stimulating multi-level EU public debates on given trade-related issues, in which a growing number of opinions are circulated, problems raised, and solutions put forward by the different sides within the political arena and civil society. In this process, specific domestic interests and expectations are attached to the negotiation of an agreement, and concerns are voiced by those constituents foreseeing a utility loss resulting from negotiation outcomes. In the aftermath of signing, if manifestation of salience has been above substantial neutrality (i.e. no salience), we expect higher chances of PROs arising. In other words, if a given issue-area already proves salient to a given audience, odds are higher that at least part of it will be unhappy with the specific way an FTA addresses that policy domain. Manifesting stakes in a given issue, in fact, means deeming it of particular relevance, but not holding the same views as to what measures are most desirable. We expect PROs to be associated with veto players (like advocacy groups) engaging in highly visible and politicised campaigns against given FTA provisions. Conversely, we expect an absence of (or low) PROs to be associated with more technical and low-key implementation discussions, involving business interests (Culpepper 2010). In this light, we put forward the following hypothesis (H1):

7H1: If salience is manifested in relation to an FTA chapter when negotiations are ongoing, political ratification obstacles (PROs) will be posed by veto players after signing.


1 The acronym ACEA stands for Association des constructeurs européens d’automobiles.


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