EU trade policy on the test bench of democracy


A study shows that the EU Parliament enjoys considerable powers in trade policy making compared to assemblies in other Western countries. But equal treatment between the EU Parliament and the member states is not yet guaranteed, says MEP Bernd Lange.


Bernd Lange, MEP – S&D, Germany: “Trade Policy Must Be Democratic”

In recent years, the handling of trade negotiations, which traditionally happened behind closed doors, has been increasingly challenged – particularly in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks with the United States which, in 2016, prompted protests across the EU.

Out from the shadows?

A study, commissioned by the Parliament and published in March 2019, compares the powers of the EP to sister institutions in Australia, Canada and the United States.

“All told, these [European Parliament’s] powers measure up relatively well, compared to parliamentary powers in trade in other Western countries”, say academics from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) who authored the study.

German Social-Democrat Bernd Lange, member of the European Parliament (MEP) and chairman of the EP’s trade committee, welcomes this development.

Bernd Lange, Member of the European Parliament – S&D, Germany: “Trade policy must be democratic”

“As a democratic parliament, here in Europe, we have achieved a lot, wherever possible, and that is a good thing: trade policy nowadays is not just about tariffs, it regards also standards, rules, labour rights, climate protection. These are sensitive topics, which must be democratically monitored.”

Comparing trade policies

As far as trade negotiations are concerned, the EP’s role is at least as significant as in other major democracies, the study says.

The European assembly has gained the right to be informed at all stages of the mandating and negotiating process. At the ratification stage, it has the power to veto a deal.

In the United States, where the Congress has constitutional competence over international trade policy, the powers to negotiate are delegated to the executive, under the so-called Trade Promotion Authority. Therefore, Congress’ rights are like those of the EP: it has a formal right to be informed and notified of all stages of negotiation, and a simple yes or no vote on the final procedure.

In Canada and in Australia, international treaties fall entirely under the competences of the executive.

Bernd Lange, Member of the European Parliament – S&D, Germany: “No trade policy without the EP’s green light”

“We have had significant developments in trade policy over the last five years, so that the parliament’s influence has been significantly strengthened. I do not know if it’s enough – of course, we are still arguing over a couple of things – but it is quite clear that, without the green light of the parliament, there is no trade policy and that is a good thing.”

The negotiations of CETA, the free-trade deal with Canada, was one of the early negotiations where the parliament exercised a stronger monitoring function. Talks were actively followed while MEPs voiced their comments and concerns throughout the whole negotiation process. For instance, they opposed the investor-state-dispute-settlement (ISDS) system, which lead to its replacement with a new Investment Court System (ICS).

In addition, several informal practices of information-sharing during negotiations have also developed.

A first observation is that it has boosted transparency in the EU’s trade policy making, says MEP Bernd Lange.

Bernd Lange, Member of the European Parliament – S&D, Germany: “Transparency has been improved” (in German)

“We have ensured more transparency in trade policy. As I arrived as chairman of the trade committee, only 23 MEPs had access to [negotiation] documents, now all the 751 MEPs have the same access rights. The EU trade positions are published on the website, we have obtained for the negotiations mandates to be also published, so that we can keep track of any discussion at an early stage.”

At a conference of the European University Institute on May 2, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström called the EU the “most transparent trade negotiator in the world”. She also noted that “trade today trade is not so much put into questions” as it used to be.

Room for improvement

Nevertheless, the role of the European assembly still lags behind when implementation of the agreements is concerned.

In addition, more efforts are needed to guarantee equal treatment of the EP comparing to the member states in the Council, says Bernd Lange.

Bernd Lange, Member of the European Parliament – S&D, Germany: “The EP is not treated equally to the Council”

“It’s about the real, equal treatment of the Council [of the EU] and the Parliament, as far as the transmission of information is concerned, or reporting – the Council still is at an advantage here.”

The study advocates that the cooperation between these two institutions should be fostered, “particularly to strengthen mutual scrutiny of the Commission.”

The researchers also believe that the EP’s veto power should be nuanced, by working on potential points of friction through formal and informal modes of communication between the executive negotiators and MEPs – along the ones developed by the US Congress.

Finally, the study recommends for the parliament to consolidate all informal practices reached in the last five years into rules of procedure. This is particularly important during mandating stage, where the EP has been adopting non-binding ‘early resolutions’ at the start of negotiations to indicate the European assembly’s red lines in the talks.