DP6283 | The Trade Strategy of the European Union: Time for a Rethink?

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Publication Date

03/05/2007

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Abstract

The European Union is the world's largest trader, a fact that on the face of it ought to convert into considerable clout in international commercial negotiations. Yet, since the World Trade Organization's (WTO's) creation in 1995, it is difficult to point to a string of successes for the European Commission's (EC's) often beleaguered trade negotiators. Even the enthusiasm associated with the launch of the Doha Round in 2001 has dissipated as these negotiations have repeatedly stalled, with many questioning what can feasibly be accomplished at the WTO in the near to medium term. A 2006 EC decision to abandon its moratorium on negotiating new free trade agreements seems more of a stop-gap measure to maintain some negotiating momentum than a systematic strategy to leverage European clout. Worse, it carries the risk of seriously undermining the multilateral trading system if EC negotiations with Korea tempt Japan, and in turn possibly even the United States, to eventually seek preferential access to the European Union's markets. With so little to show for the last 10 years and the future of the multilateral trading system decidedly uncertain, a fundamental rethink of the ends and means of European trade policy is in order. That rethink needs to take account of the following realities: a shift away from a bipolar towards a multi-polar WTO; recognition of the fact that the principal liberalising accomplishment to date of the multilateral trading system has been the freeing of manufactured goods trade between industrialised countries and that many other potential reforms have either stalled or proved, on implementation, to be highly controversial; substantial opposition among many prominent groups in the leading trading powers to further trade reform (even in countries experiencing fast economic growth or export growth); and a greater emphasis on signing bilateral and regional free trade agreements (whose liberalising intent and impact is often highly circumscribed). Once the superficial attractions associated with the scramble for preferential market access in Asia fade, European trade policymakers ought to confront these realities. At a minimum, the search will then be on for a modus vivendi with the new trading powers. This will require thought to be given to the likely future offensive and defensive commercial interests of all concerned, bearing in mind the differences in level of development and overseas corporate exposure and organisation. The ultimate goal should be to identify the potential basis for future multilateral trade accords. Properly conceived, future European trade strategy could contribute significantly to the renewal of one of the most successful post-war international economic institutions.