European Commission receives mixed reaction to new trade strategy

The executive launched a major review process of the EU’s trade policy last year and this concluded with the presentation of a “renewed” policy by its vice-president, Valdis Dombrovskis.
Valdis Dombrovskis

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

22 Feb 2021

The new strategy, called an “Open, Sustainable and Assertive Trade Policy,” states that, “where necessary, the EU will take a more assertive stance in defending its interests.”

It says that EU trade policy “should unequivocally support the Green Deal in all its dimensions, including the ambition to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.”

Dombrovskis said the EU was “putting sustainability at the heart of its new trade strategy” which, he said, will contribute to the EU's economic recovery.

He said, “The challenges we face require a new strategy for EU trade policy. We need open, rules-based trade to help restore growth and job creation post-COVID-19.”

“Equally, trade policy must fully support the green and digital transformations of our economy and lead global efforts to reform the WTO. It should also give us the tools to defend ourselves when we face unfair trade practices.”

He added, “We are pursuing a course that is open, strategic and assertive, emphasising the EU's ability to make its own choices and shape the world around it through leadership and engagement, reflecting our strategic interests and values.”

Reacting to the move, ECR MEP Geert Bourgeois said, “The EU has to face various geopolitical conflicts and unprecedented economic and social consequences of the Covid crisis. We must remain open but protect our interests in a more assertive way at the same time without being protectionist.”

“We fully support the orientation to multilateralism and we see ourselves aligned with our partners on the other side of the Atlantic. But we also need a shift towards the Southern and Eastern Neighbourhood of the European Union.”

“The challenges we face require a new strategy for EU trade policy. We need open, rules-based trade to help restore growth and job creation post-COVID-19” Valdis Dombrovskis, European Commission vice-president

“The EU should offer sustainable investment opportunities, and alternative models for development in comparison to what China offers Africa.”

However, a leading environmental NGO said the proposal “lacks teeth to bring trade and climate together.”

Cornelia Maarfield, Trade and Climate Project Manager at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, said, “We welcome that the Commission has finally found the right goal post by recognising the need to make climate mitigation a key objective of EU trade policy.”

“The EU’s strategies to move the ball in this direction and achieve this alignment of trade and climate policies nevertheless disappoint for a self-proclaimed climate champion”

She added, “The proposal fails to recognise that trade deals can contradict climate objectives by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating deforestation or liberalising trade in polluting goods.”

“It also falls short of ruling out such deals in the future, like the EU-Mercosur agreement. Instead, it merely puts forward a new chapter on ‘sustainable food systems.’”

“There is little reason to believe that this will bring about major improvements, considering that the existing ‘Trade and Sustainable Development Chapter’ has failed to do so given their vague, often unenforceable language and a lack of mechanisms to sanction non-compliance.”

BusinessEurope director general Markus J. Beyrer said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has further accentuated protectionist tendencies worldwide. As the global trading environment becomes more challenging and uncertain, the EU must resist protectionist temptations and remain a strong defender of open markets.”

“The EU has to face various geopolitical conflicts and unprecedented economic and social consequences of the Covid crisis. We must remain open but protect our interests in a more assertive way at the same time without being protectionist” Geert Bourgeois, ECR

“Trade will play a key role in the economic recovery. In 2024, 85 percent of the world’s GDP growth is expected to come from outside the EU. To be successful in its green and digital transformations the EU needs to create further trade and investment opportunities for companies in third markets.”

“It should also ensure continuous and unlimited access to key resources – raw materials, goods, services, investments. This will be key for the EU’s resilience and leadership in a more competitive world.”

He added, “The EU must be assertive in defending its legitimate rights and interests, but we cannot act alone. We need to work together with like-minded trading partners, building alliances to address international challenges like climate change, competitive distortions and fast digitalisation.”

Further comment came from the European Services Forum (ESF), representing the interests of the European service sectors in international trade and investment negotiations.

ESF chairman Noel Clehane said the announcement “sets the basis for a revised trade policy that takes many aspects of the comments made extensively by the ESF. We welcome in particular the strong focus on services and digital trade.”

Regarding the concept of “open strategic autonomy”, he said ESF “believes that the EU resilience lies in keeping world markets open with fair and non-discriminatory conditions.”

“The implementation and enforcement of these new tools will have to be managed in a careful and balanced way so as to not put into question the level of openness of the European Union” he said.

Elsewhere, a spokesman for the European Paper Industry said it welcomes the Commission’s “resolve to ensure that trade tools accompany and promote value chains that are circular, responsible and sustainable.”

“We also support the Commission’s intention to address deforestation and forest degradation at global level.”

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