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Too Complex or Too Ambitious?

Leopoldo Biffi

9. Conclusion

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1To conclude, this research has drawn attention to the recent reality of EU trade politics and policymaking, focusing on the political constraints EU domestic actors pose to the Common Commercial Policy (CCP). We specifically enquired into what domestic political obstacles confront the Commission in view of the ratification and implementation of negotiated FTAs, also exploring how the Commission addresses these obstacles and what policy dynamics can aid such an endeavour.

2Evidence from examined FTAs suggests that civil-society advocacy has come to play a prominent role in accounting for how salient trade-policy issues translate into political ratification obstacles (PROs). Unlike business lobbies, citizen groups lack vast funding, and yet mobilise on highly salient issues like trade and environment, sustainable development, or regulatory sovereignty, gaining political leverage as a result. Similar policy domains have been at the centre of vivid debates, notably in the context of FTAs such as the TTIP, the CETA, or the recently concluded EU-Mercosur agreement. In that regard, the research has endeavoured to preliminarily establish an explicit and theoretically informed link tracing back the growing prominence of these topics to the policy role played by citizen groups against the backdrop of FTA ratifications. Qualifying them as veto players, we have argued that advocacy groups translate their political weight into policy leverage to the extent that they shape the position of key policy officials involved at different levels in the ratification of EU FTAs. These range from Members of the European Parliament (EP) to national governments and legislatures.

3The research has also explored on what conditions the Commission is compelled by the advocacy actors discussed above to revise ex post the terms of negotiated FTA chapters, in a process referred to as “solution-chasing” (Cairney 2020: 199). In this regard, we have argued that the Commission is compelled to revise the terms of negotiated FTAs largely on an ad hoc basis. Namely, FTA reviews, safeguards, or monitoring are mainly implemented when the demands of interest groups are endorsed either by the EP, Member States, or national parliaments, thus translating into credible vetoes against negotiated agreements. Similar dynamics apply equally to mixed FTAs. This latter category of agreements has been deemed of particular intricacy by the literature, in that it requires additional processes of national-level ratification by Member States, during which the possibility of a veto time-wise stretches (Van der Loo 2017). Yet, our preliminary exploration of the CETA has suggested that once mixed FTAs are provisionally enforced at the EU level, lock-in dynamics involving both critical national officials and unfavourable civil-society interest groups can lower the odds of a delayed veto. In that regard, we conclude that getting a text provisionally enforced at the EU level constitutes the main strategic goal for the Commission. Provisional enforcement emerges as a key juncture at which, if red lines are drawn by domestic veto players, adjustment will need to be performed. Yet, once this watershed is crossed, the Commission will arguably face lesser constraints, as a function of veto players’ lock-ins into the de facto implementation of FTAs they in principle regard as suboptimal.

4Overall, the above policy dynamics suggest that the Commission has addressed civil-society concerns contingently, in the strategic attempt to rescue negotiated texts from the prospect of a veto. However, in the recent politics of EU trade, vocal concerns have repeatedly been voiced on a number of issues, ranging from sustainable development (TSD) to sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, especially in the process leading towards FTA ratifications. To a greater extent than tariffs and market-access, similar topics very much emerge as the issues in new-generation EU trade. In this light, the above-mentioned political dynamics will push Brussels in the direction of encompassing advocacy demands more extensively and systematically into trade policy. That will mean acting at the level of treaty-design, by devising structured conditionality clauses (for instance, on TSD) and demanding strictly enforceable commitments from trading partners. The examined ratification hurdles would be prevented by implementing safeguards ahead of concluding trade negotiations. In this light, our exploration of political challenges to a more effective CCP can serve as a starting point stimulating future research avenues. These could enquire into how a more systematic and extensive inclusion of civil-society concerns into EU trade policies would contribute to enhancing the coherence, ambitiousness, and credibility of EU market power, moving beyond a condition caught between external assertiveness and domestic stalemate. This is not narrowly dictated by the increased political leverage gained by citizen groups. Rather, it acknowledges that ambitious EU trade crucially rests on effectively reconciling domestic norm-making with external pragmatism.


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