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Commission 2017 Work Programme: What’s in it for trade?

The negotiations towards a “reasonable and balanced free trade agreement with the US” and reform of the EU’s trade defence instruments (TDIs) top the trade-related section number six in the ten-point Commission Work Programme (CWP) for 2017.

The new Trade Strategy adopted in 2015 is listed among major initiatives of the Juncker Commission, “where effective European action can make a concrete difference in addressing the challenges facing Europe’s citizens, our Member States and the Union as a whole.” However, growing disapproval among EU citizens of comprehensive free trade agreements, going beyond simple abolishing of tariffs and other trade barriers, shows the need for adjustments. But the Commission’s 2017 Work Programme does not provide for any specific actions that would increase the awareness of EU citizens about the benefits of the “open and rules-based” trade that the Commission declares itself to be committed to.

TTIP

The Commission reiterates its readiness to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement with the US. However, it states that due to the upcoming presidential elections in the US and the “inevitable slowdown of the pace of negotiations, both parties will endeavour to consolidate the progress that has been achieved” rather than make a push for the conclusion of negotiations in 2017. Nevertheless the Commission adds that it “stands ready to engage with the new US administration as soon as possible, on the basis of the mandate” agreed in 2013 and “reconfirmed by the European Council on 21 October 2016.”

TDIs

The Commission emphasises the necessity to strengthen the EU’s trade defence instruments in order to make them more sustainable “in light of new economic challenges such as over-capacity and changing legal realities” due to the partial expiry of China’s WTO Accession Protocol on 10 December 2016. “It is now urgent that the Council solves the stalemate on our proposal from 2013 to modernise Trade Defence Instruments, including a reform of the lesser duty rule,” reads the CWP. The paper further reads that “the Commission will also play a leading role in the implementation of the Global Forum on steel excess capacity, under the auspices of the G20.”

Work in progress

Aside from the US, the Commission intends next year to continue free trade negotiations with Japan, Mercosur, Mexico, Tunisia and ASEAN countries (Indonesia and Philippines). Including Japan in this list suggests that the target date of 2016 to conclude the talks with Tokyo is unlikely to be met. The Commission pledges also to continue work for a “swift ratification” of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada.

New mandates expected

As for new free trade talks, the Commission will seek mandates to open negotiations with Turkey, Australia, New Zealand and Chile. Including Turkey in this list suggests that the Commission gave up on its plan to request authorisation from the Council to enter into talks with Ankara by the end of this year (see article).

WTO talks

On the WTO, the Commission stresses the necessity to continue the ongoing discussions on plurilateral agreements. It suggests that both currently negotiated agreements, namely the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) and the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) might not be concluded as planned by the end of 2016.

Trade with Africa

Another reference to trade is to be found under initiative number nine “a stronger global actor”. It states that, on the occasion of the fifth EU-Africa Summit at the end of 2017, the Commission will present a “new approach” defining the EU’s strategic objectives and priorities in relations with Africa. The document should also “emphasise the crucial importance of our trade relations with African partners,” the CWP adds.

Cold reception

For the first time, the preparation of the Commission Work Programme included consultations with the European Parliament (EP), as foreseen in the new Inter-institutional Agreement on Better Law-Making.

However, the final document has drawn strong criticism from some political groups in the EP over the lack of ambition and its failure to address European citizens’ concerns about globalisation and unequal distribution of wealth created by free trade agreements.

The presentation of the document on 25 October by Commission Vice-President Timmermans took place in the context of Wallonia’s veto to the signature of the EU-Canada free trade agreement (CETA) by Belgium. Discussions aimed at breaking the stalemate have highlighted the mounting distrust among European citizens over ambitious trade liberalisation, which touches upon such aspects as social, environmental and labour standards as well as the right of governments to regulate in the public interest.

In consequence, some MEPs gave a rather cold reception to the Commission’s 2017 work programme in the area of trade.

“When I look at the trade part, it is just business as usual, it is just continuing: ‘we are doing a great job so we continue’. Well sorry, but maybe some people have noticed that there is a huge debate on which direction the EU is going with its trade deals,” said Bas Eickhout (Netherlands) addressing the plenary on behalf of the Greens. “We are not discussing trade deals anymore. CETA stands for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. It is more than just a trade deal. That is why you are now having discussions with national parliaments. That is why there is now such a huge discussion, and the Commission is saying, we will just continue with it because it is working fine, which is just turning a blind eye to what is going on outside. I think that this should be mentioned far more in the work programme,” he added.

“We need to have a much more comprehensive investment strategy led by Europe 2020 and sustainable development goals, and this should be translated into industrial and trade policy to be updated in Europe,” Maria João Rodrigues (Portugal) said, on behalf of the S&D Group.

“We have issues such as Brexit, we have trade deals – that you crave after, Mr Timmermans – that are falling apart all around your ears,” Luke Ming Flanagan (GUE/NGL, Ireland) said.

Addressing the plenary on behalf of the ALDE group, Dutch MEP Sophia in’t Veld criticised the Commission for a lack of action to increase transparency also in the area of trade negotiations. “I think that people are terribly concerned about the way that the European Union is working and one of the things, I think, that should be at the top of the list is transparency and accountability,” she said. “We see that the Council is now making all kinds of agreements with Turkey and other countries, and these seem to have no basis whatsoever in the Treaties,” she added, concluding that “it is neither democratic nor transparent nor accountable. So if we really want to regain trust, those are the issues that we should be focusing on”.

Next steps

On the basis of the Work Programme, the Commission, the EP and the Council will now work on the first joint declaration on commonly agreed targets and priorities for 2017, to be signed by the Presidents of the three institutions in December, in order to turn proposals into action.

By Hermine Donceel and Joanna Sopinska