The normative role of the European Parliament in EU trade policy


Do Members of European Parliament (MEPs) debate the same way on trade agreements and especially, promote the same European values, depending on the trade partners? This study seeks to examine the shape of the politicisation of each agreements’ debates, by looking at 17 debates on trade agreements that were signed by the European Union (EU) since the Treaty of Lisbon (ToL), to observe the references to European norms in MEPs debates and vote explanations.

Trade is an important factor for the promotion of the EU values, as it has been labelled by academics as the European Union’s “raison d’être” and has become one of the rare areas of foreign policy where the EU is an uncontested power (1:276). Its colossal market position and its 500 million inhabitants, shaped by 40 years of negotiating trade agreements, remain its best leverage and asset in economic diplomacy (2). Indeed, through economic partnerships the EU intends to shape the world’s norms and standards, by offering access to its market in exchange for concessions on normative issues (3). This approach to trade policy that is defended both multilaterally and bilaterally by the EU has logically brought a surge in the politicisation of this policy area, as it has become about more than just economic interests (4). To support worldwide partners to adjust to international norms while working in their economic interest, the EU launched a series of bilateral agreements, with provisions to support its political agenda on issues such as sustainable development and human rights (5). Furthermore, the European politicisation of trade policy has evolved with the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, where the European Parliament gained veto powers and a set of formal and informal powers (6).

This increase of power correlated with the growing politicisation of trade in the European media and in the public, often with normative concerns (7). Debates on the negotiations for agreements with the United States, Canada or Mercosur are examples of cases which were discussed in national European media (8), which was not the case before the 2010s, when trade was labelled as a “bureaucrat to bureaucrat” policy area (9).

This study therefore compares the levels of references to five European norms in MEPs debates and votes explanations in the conclusion of trade agreements, to see if the trade partner influences the composition of these references. By giving some context about the EU normative power in trade and the role of the EP in this policy area (I), this study shapes the subsequent analysis of the results (II) and later presents three special case studies on Eastern European, Latin-American and Asian trade agreements to highlight possible factors for differences (III). The methodology and the different results can be found in the Appendix.

To what extent is the EU a normative power in trade?

The European Union is a power in trade, but also through trade (4). An access to the EU’s market is, for a country willing to conclude a trade agreement with the organisation, an incentive to change some of its domestic regulations and therefore a powerful asset (4). This approach highlights Manners’ (10) concept of the EU as a “normative power”, characterised by a will to diffuse EU norms in the world. The EU is not only built on a normative basis, but also intends to act on the international scene in a normative way (10). This will was expressed by the DG for Trade in the Global Europe Strategy (11), which states that the standards for goods should not be lowered in the EU, but also that the values that the EU adheres to (notably sustainable development, human rights, labour rights) must be considered while negotiating agreements (12).

The post-Treaty of Lisbon role of the EP

The process of trade policy making has undergone important changes with the Treaty of Lisbon (6). Firstly, it changed the scope of the area to include more trade related issues, including foreign direct investment (13). Secondly, it brought coherence across EU policies and trade is now ruled under the EU’s external action goals, along with foreign policy, development, humanitarian aid and environmental ambitions, which means that these concerns must be taken into account when legislating (14). Thirdly, the ToL brought trade policies under the ordinary legislative process. Pre-Lisbon, the EP was only consulted when an international agreement brought changes to the EU domestic legislations or when there were budgetary implications (15; 16). Although “for political reasons”, most trade agreements were presented in front of the EP, “there was never really any likelihood that the EP would not give its assent” (13;8). With the ToL and the ordinary legislative process, the EP gained the power to consent (or veto) measures related to trade and more importantly, trade agreements (17). The Commission is also now legally obligated to provide information on the development of trade negotiations to the EP. The ToL thus provided the EP with a “enhanced democratic control” over the EU trade policy, which Devuyst argues will allow the EP “to act as an effective guardian of fundamental rights and civil liberties in EU external relations” (17:189).

Through this formal increase in power in the ratifying stage of trade agreements, the EP managed to gain an informal influence on the entire policy-building process. The EP reinterpreted the ToL’s provision about “informing” the EP about trade negotiations into “involving” the institution (18:580) and, because of the threat of a veto at the ratifying stage, the Commission now involves the EP at the agenda-setting and negotiation stages. The surge of politicisation in European trade policy Post-ToL and with the EP’s involvement at various stages of trade policy making, the external priorities of economic interests became more tightly linked with the internal interests of defending European norms and values. This led to the defence of a social agenda brought further by MEPs, which resulted in “greater normative outcomes” in EU trade agreements, argues Richardson (19:24). The EP thus politicised trade policy, despite its own limitations due to its political structure, the latter being characterised by the need for consensus and the diverse political parties and opinions (20). Duina (21) furthermore explained that as trade agreements became increasingly broader, they paved the way for more national interests and held identity and cultural features, which increased politicisation.

A study of the politicisation of trade in the EP

The debate on which norms and values are prioritised requires attention, because the protection and diffusion of European norms and values are at the core of the EP’s identity in trade policy (22). Consequently, the aim of this paper is to identify if there are variations in the references to norms and values in the EP’s plenary debates and vote explanations on the conclusion of trade agreements, to analyse whether the EP focuses on some norms rather than others according to the trade partner it is dealing with, the year or the type of trade agreements. This will be done through a content analysis of MEPs speeches during plenary debates and vote explanations (see Appendix : Methodology).

Norms are varying depending on the trade partner, but not increasing

The results show an indiscutable variation in the use of norms by MEPs depending on the trade agreement, as different norms are used in different quantities for each cases. They thus vary, but do not seem to follow a particular dynamic, increase or decrease through time since the ToL, despite the will of the EU for better coherence across policy areas and for a higher use of normative values in trade agreements (23). Human Rights were the most referenced until 2014, when the EU concluded trade agreements with groups of developing countries such as the Pacific States, the Central American region, two members of the Andean Community and the ESA. Through mid-2014 to 2016, good governance became the most important norm to be referenced, when the EU trade policy aimed at concluding AAs with geographically closer neighbours such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Kosovo. After the Kosovo SAA, the norm with the highest level of references for every debate, with the exception of Vietnam, became sustainable development. This dynamic notably reflects the Europeans’ concerns for the environment (24) and the more recent trend of EU agreements with major global actors (Canada, Japan, Singapore), with which sustainable development seems to be more referenced. These three waves of references to norms result in non-linear dynamics in their uses and different priorities depending on the partners, as described in later parts of this section.

Overall however, the highest level of references across the 17 bilateral agreements post-ToL in MEPs speeches is sustainable development, with a score of 426, ahead of good governance (387) and human rights (386). Labour rights (239) and the fight against poverty (100) follow next (see Table 1, Appendix)

Number of speeches and total level of references per trade partners

An overall deepening politicisation of EU trade debates

A useful observation to analyse a potential increasing politicisation of trade policy is the one presented in the figure above, which compares the level of references to norms and values compared to the number of speeches in each trade agreement – still keeping in mind that one speech may have several levels of norms in it, therefore explaining why there are in some cases more references than speeches. Through this chart, we observe that agreements with developing countries, such as the ones with Central America, Peru and Colombia, the ESA and Vietnam, are more politicised proportionally in the EP than the ones with Eastern European nations, Kosovo excluded. This can be explained with the focus that the EU has on developing countries, which is mostly normative (25), compared to the wider Europe where geopolitical ambitions of stabilisation are the priority (26). Indeed, Armanovica and Bendini (27) argued that the level of inclusions of normative clauses depended on the level of development of the trade partner, and the MEPs debates seem to follow a similar approach. Furthermore, the economic ties do not seem to be a relevant indicator of a higher or lower interest in norms. Whereas Canada, Singapore, Vietnam or the SADC have an approximatly similar level of economic ties with the EU, the number and the form of the norms differs (see Figure 1, Appendix).

Good Governance symbolising the proximity with Eastern European partners

Despite being comprised of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA), the Association Agreements (AAs) that the EU ratifies with the Balkans countries or the wider Europe (notably countries from the Eastern Partnership, EaP), have a geopolitical ambition more stated than other Trade Agreements (TAs), because of their proximity to the EU and the influence of Russia in the region (28; 29). Through its normative power, the EU tries to influence its neighbours and expand its values beyond its frontiers (30).

These four countries have the highest level of references on good governance, compared to the rest of the post-ToL trade agreements (see Table 1, Appendix). The EU has used the ‘carrot of enlargement’ with EaP and Balkan states to alter their political institutions (31). This opportunity allows the EU to change policies within the countries that are interested in joining the European market, because they have to comply with the Article 49 of the European Union Treaty which states that they have to be firstly European and secondly, a democracy (31), hence the high number of democratic standards that are referenced. Thus, their prime interest when dealing with European norms and standards are democracy and human rights, perhaps more than for other partners (32), and these norms are more referenced in EP debates (see Table 3, Appendix). It also helps to understand why Kosovo has a higest number of references to norms (except on labour rights) than Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: being a country in the Balkans, the EU’s wishes of enlargement in the region are more medium-term and publicly expressed than with countries from the EaP (33). Indeed, for the three EaP countries with AAs, a future adhesion to the EU is less promoted by the EU than by the targeted countries’ government themselves (29).

Still, for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the AAs are part of the larger EaP strategy which aims at increasing cooperation with the wider Europe states, in particular in the area of human rights and good governance (30). The AAs with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are part of this strategy to grow democracy in the region (34) and to promote political stability in the region, which is bordering the EU, to avoid the conflicts that have happenned in previous years in Kosovo, Georgia and Ukraine, on the EU’s borders (26). To do so, the EU wants to bring European investments to these countries, which could also enhance its influence by building political leverage, because of an increased political weight (26). However, in order to increase investments in these regions, the EU needs a political environment that could attract investors, with democracy and the rule of law, and that is a reason for the number of references to good governance (26).

On the other hand, the EU’s emphasis to environmental values with the wider Europe is more recent that the other norms, therefore explaining why sustainable development is less referenced with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova (26). Contrarily to the stabilisation of the region, sustainable development is not the priority in the wider Europe (25). The case of Kosovo, which differs from the other three AAs, is partly due to its location in the Balkans, where the EU seeks to enlarge (31), but also because the Stabilisation ans Association Agreement (SAA) with the country was expected to be difficult to implement and the EU had to increase the number of provisions on European norms in the agreement to answer to MEPs’ concerns (35). Finally, the high number of references to sustainable development compared to the debates with EaP countries could be due to foreign interferences in its energy market (36), or just to the post-2016 increase of references to sustainable development in EP debates.

The case of Latin America : different priorities between an Association Agreement and a Trade Agreement

Another interesting case study is the Latin American countries: an AA was agreed by the EP on the 10th of December 2012 with six countries of Central America, the same day than a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Peru and Colombia. Four years later, the EU agreed to the accession of Ecuador onto the TA with Peru and Colombia.

The two different approaches that the EU has taken regarding Central American and the three countries from the Andean Community make for an interesting discrepancy (see Table 4, Appendix). The AA with Central America was the result of the EU’s past strategy in trade policy, concentrated on a region-to-region approach to gro regionalism worldwide. The second one, concluded on the same day with two countries, was the result of less a political process but more about economic interests, which showcased the impossibility to conclude an agreement with the Andean Community as a whole. Indeed, the EU tried for a long time to set an AA with the Andean Community but had to withdraw their interest and work bilateraly with Colombia and Peru, later joined by Ecuador, as the talks were blocked several times (37).

The main difference is the variety of norms that are referenced in the parliamentary debates. In both agreements, concerns for human rights were expressed, but while labour rights were the only other normative issue widely referenced in the case of Peru and Colombia, Central America had in comparaison high levels of references to sustainable development, good governance and the fight against poverty, and a low level of references to labour rights. Both agreements were highly politicised, but this politicisation took different forms.  

This variation can be explained by the difference in relationships the EU has with these partners. With the Central American states, which are recipients of EU aids and assistance, the EU’s normative power is higher on a number of issues, from the fight against poverty to sustainable development (37). Indeed, the percentages of speeches mentionning the latter two norms are much higher with the case of Central America. Moreover, the region-to-region approach helps to spread its norms on good governance, as the EU is an example in regionalisation and has legitimacy to talk about it (37). 31.59% of speeches on the AA with Central America reference good governance, a number that is much lower with Peru and Colombia (8.47%) and Ecuador (6.57).

The trade agreements between the EU and Peru and Colombia were concluded with larger economies, which are developing. The high levels of references to human rights and labour rights highlight the controversies in Colombia around the killings of trade unionists at the time of negotiations (27). The EP even discussed with the two governments directly, so they could adopt binding arguments on the issue (27). However the low level of references to sustainable development for instance, shows that the FTA does not have the same level of political cooperation as an AA. Whereas in the speeches about the AA with Central America, concerns were more global, the references to human and labour rights in the case of (mostly) Colombia and (less) Peru were linked with the recent news and the NGOs’ pressure.

In regards to Ecuador, which joined the same agreement as Peru and Colombia, it is interesting to compare the level of references to those of its predecesor. Ecuador has a higher level of references to sustainable development, and a slightly lesser level of references to labour and human rights.

This can be explained by the overall dynamics of MEPs speeches on trade policy, which has been referring more to sustainable development post-2016 compared to pre-2016. On the levels of references to human rights and sustainable development, although they are high, the percentage of speeches mentioning these norms is still quite low compared to the ones of the AA with Central America. Because of concerns about the banana market, Ecuador’s accession was more commented on, but not necessarily with a normative aim.

Similar agreements with Korea and Japan shows an evolution in EU trade policy

Comparing the trade agreements with the Asian states since 2009 and their levels of references to norms and values by the MEPs has a particular interest: it allows us to compare partners that are quite similar, such as Korea and Japan (38), but on which MEPs have debated seven years apart. It also brings the interesting case of Vietnam, which differs highly from the three other Asian countries (see Table 5, Appendix).

Korea has the lowest level of references to norms of the four countries, while Japan and Singapore likewise have low levels of references, but higher than Korea’s, especially on sustainable development and labour rights. The focus on sustainable development does not come as a surprise. Developing economies are more often promoting sustainable pratices (38) and as a result, the role of these three countries in accepting international norms and fighting against climate change has been highlighted by MEPs. From the agreement with South Korea to the three more recent agreements, there is an evolution “from vague to more detailed notions of trade and sustainable development” (38:96), which is corrolated within the EP. MEPs have mentioned sustainable development in their speeches with Korea without too much focus, while going into deeper explanations with Japan and Singapore (as showcased by the numbers of level 2 and 3 references to sustainable development, which are higher with Japan than Korea), demonstrating a broader dynamic where sustainable development has become on average the overwhelming predominant norm in trade policy debates since 2016 (Figure 1). This does not come as a surprise: the FTA with South Korea was one of the first to be debated on by the post-ToL EP and was with a partner that “did not oppose the inclusion of ‘non-trade’ clauses, but instead pushed for a standard that had no precedent in previous EU proceedings” (27:10) which explains why there were few critics on normative issues.

The case of Vietnam differs from the previous three. Its economy is mainly based on cheap exports with different interests than Japan, Korea and Singapore. More importantly, it does not comply with some of the international agreements that the others do, such as International Labor Organisation’s (ILO) conventions (5) and for this reason, its level of politicisation is more important than the others (Figure 2). In every norms and references, Vietnam is higher: 68.36% of all MEPs declarations in the plenary session refered to human rights, and 55.70% sustainable development.

One explanation lies in the EU’s negotiating position with Vietnam, with the use of “hard policy measures” for the promotions of norms which were tougher than with Singapore for instance, which it negotiated at the same time (5:375). This was the result of Vietnam being less flexible, as they were willing to accelerate the process for a trade agreement (5). This increased the leverage of the EU, as Vietnam accepted the ambitious European norms without many negotiations (5). Consequently, supporters of the agreement in the plenary sessions had much to say about the level of norms and values incorporated in the deal and congratulated the EU on the ambitious normative agenda of the FTA, which had high provisions on human rights and sustainable development (39). Likewise, those against the deal used high levels of references to norms and values, to respond to the pressure from NGO and the public audience, which criticised the trade agreement (5).

This study has sought to observe variations in the use of norms by MEPs during plenary debates and explanations of votes since the ToL came into force. The results did show variations according to the country the EU was negotiating with, but without a progressive increase of the use of norms in MEPs speeches since the ToL.

However, different dynamics could be drawn depending on the framing of these speeches. The EU in the post-ToL period experienced three different priorities in the area of normative values. Firstly, an emphasis on human rights until 2014, until it changed to good governance as the EU shifted its trade strategy to the European continent and lastly, since 2016 a global dominance of the use of references to sustainable development. Overall, this study shows that sustainable development has been the priority for MEPs in speeches, followed by human rights and good governance.

Three different case studies furthermore highlight aspects of the EP’s normative agenda in trade policy. Starting with a focus on the Eastern European countries, this study found a real dominance of issues around good governance, explained by the EU’s geopolitical aims in the region, mainly democratisation and stability, as well as the targeted countries’ ambitions to one day join the EU. The second case study on Latin American trade agreements showed that the AA with Central America was a more politically engaged agreement, in a region where the EU is a fund distributor, than with other Latin-American partners. With Peru and Colombia, the main norms referenced were labour and human rights, because of controversies in Colombia and the case of Ecuador, which joined the same agreement four years later, proves the post-2016 increase of references to sustainable development. Finally, the four agreements that the EP has debated with Asian trade partners highlighted the differences in references to norms in the case of two relatively similar economies, Korea and Japan, with a global increase of references to all norms in the case of Japan, which was concluded seven years later. The case of Vietnam, which had different results from the three others and was negotiated at similar times to Singapore, also shows that its negotiating position was not ideal and that it had to accept many of the EU’s normative demands.


There will always be certain controversies that will shape the content of MEPs speeches and overall, studying every variable that affects the politicisation of a trade agreement in the EP will be a tough task. For instance, the agreement with Ghana has about three times the amount of speeches than the one with Japan, which was by far the most ambitious ever done by the EU, and that was mostly due to debates around banana duties. However, this study offers a starting point and a precious database to study the level of references to normative issues by MEPs in relations to other characteristics of trade policy, for which many variables and explanations remain to be studied.

Antoine Latran


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Le commerce international reste un des meilleurs outils de l'Union Européenne sur la scène mondiale. Grâce à son important marché, tant dû au nombre de consommateurs qu'à la puissance de son économie, l'UE utilise son poids commercial afin d'influence les politiques de ses partenaires commerciaux. Dans ce domaine de politique internationale, le Parlement Européen possède un pouvoir conséquent depuis 2009 et le Traité de Lisbonne. Grâce à son possible véto, il influence les négociations et pousse la Commission à intégrer plus de normes dans les accords de libre-échanges, dans un contexte européen où la population s'inquiète désormais des conséquences écologiques et humanitaires du libre-échange (le CETA, l'accord avec le Mercosur et le TAFTA en sont de bons exemples). Cette étude vise, en observant les débats au Parlement Européen sur 17 accords de libre-échange, à quantifier les normes qui sont mentionnées par les députés européens. Parlent-ils davantage de développement durable ou de Droits de l'Homme, dépendamment du partenaire commercial ? La proximité avec le continent européen s'allie-t-elle avec une plus grande partie des discours liée à la démocratie ? Les normes évoquées dépendent-elles également de l'accord signé ? Elle a donc pour objectif d'analyser ce qui influence ou non les discours normatifs des députés européens, suivant l'accord de libre-échange négocié.
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