Trade agreements must be monitored better, more transparent, focus on small and medium-sized enterprises and promote European values and norms, writes Tokia Saïfi.
The international context has evolved significantly since the European Commission published its latest trade strategy in 2015. While the US is withdrawing from the international scene, Asia continues to grow at the speed of light, the digital economy continues to develop, and the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union.
Given these major changes and the uncertainty they create, the EU has no choice but to be proactive and show leadership. Many tools have already been put in place within the EU’s trade policy, but for too long, the commission and member states have concentrated on starting and pursuing negotiations. Monitoring and proper implementation of these agreements are equally important and must be fully part of the EU’s trade policy.
A report published by the commission on the implementation of EU trade agreements last November reveals a worrying situation: European companies make use of available duty rebates for about 70% of their eligible exports, whereas our partners use that duty rebate in around 90% of cases.
Better access to public procurement markets, the recognition and protection of European geographical indications and tariff elimination are opportunities that can and should benefit our companies.
EU exports sustain 31 million jobs in Europe, 67% more than in the mid-1990s. More comprehensive use of the trade preferences in free trade agreements would lead to higher growth rates and more job creation. This is something we cannot neglect.
‘A matter of credibility’
We can’t negotiate and promote trade deals that are not fully used by our economic players. It is a matter of credibility for the EU as the world’s top trading power.
Better communication and lower administrative burdens are needed to achieve a better utilisation rate of our FTAs by European companies. The commission and member states must become proactive and ensure that companies know more about the potential benefits of these agreements. They need to identify where the problem lies and come up with solutions to respond to a problem in the functioning of the FTA or if the partner doesn’t respect its commitments.
EU delegations abroad should be our anchor in order to express our concerns to trade partners and report back on the situation on the ground. By being in direct contact with local authorities, business sector and civil society, EU delegations should foster more dialogue and day-to-day cooperation. This is why we need to integrate them more during the implementation phase of our trade policy.
Focus on SMEs
Finally, special measures for our small and medium-sized enterprises are needed to ensure our trade policy is more accessible today. SMEs account for 30% of EU exports. The negotiation of special SME chapters which are included in our FTAs demonstrates that they are direct beneficiaries of these agreements and that special attention should be paid to these companies.
In parallel with this economic dimension, it is equally important to remember that the EU was built on values which must be defended. Trade policy contributes to the promotion of values such as human rights, democracy, equality and environmental protection. Special policy tools already exist – for example, the General System of Preferences ‘Plus’ and the inclusion of chapters on trade and sustainable development in FTAs. There, too, we now need to focus on following up and ensuring that these instruments are properly implemented.
Whether based on economics or on values, it is essential that the EU pursue and deepen its cooperation with international organisations such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation. These are forums where we can pass on our messages, defend the European model on an international scale, shape global norms and fight against unfair practices.
The recent intensification of international trade and the growing number of trade negotiations raises questions and debates among citizens. The commission and member states must now work towards greater transparency and publish more information about how trade negotiations are conducted. The European Parliament called on the EU Council – several times – to publish the negotiating mandate for trade talks. Stakeholders must be consulted as soon as the negotiations are scoped and be informed about progress in the discussions. Their questions must be answered. Such transparency will contribute to a public debate that gives answers to citizens rather than nurturing their fears.
As member of the European Parliament, I will continue to promote fair and equitable trade which pursues the goals of reciprocity and mutual gains, ensures fair competition and preserves European norms.
French MEP Tokia Saïfi is vice-chair of the international trade committee and former French minister.
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