Brussels says it’s serious about green trade deals

Climate and labor commitments in trade deals with Brussels can no longer be empty promises, the EU is set to announce on Wednesday. If future trade partners don’t live up to those promises, they risk trade sanctions.

The EU believes it can use its massive markets as a lever to push its trading partners to better protect the climate by sharpening the provisions in future trade agreements.

“We promised that trade policy would play a greater role in supporting the EU’s sustainability agenda,” EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis told POLITICO. “Today, we are delivering on that promise, taking an important step on the road to making EU trade greener, fairer and more sustainable.”

When a trade partner fails to meet obligations it has signed up to under a trade deal, the EU will in future deploy sanctions “as a last resort,” he added.

Brussels also hopes the move will help boost support for its trade policy within Europe. In recent years, the EU has struggled to sign — and ratify — trade agreements. Concerns about human rights, labor standards or deforestation have complicated negotiations that were once purely economic. Under Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EU has proposed plans to tackle deforestation and respect human rights and the environment in global value chains.

EU trade deals have traditionally included provisions on international labor and environmental standards, but they did not provide enforcement mechanisms. When Korea, for example, didn’t sign up to ratify core International Labor Organization Conventions, Brussels struggled to enforce those provisions. The European Parliament in particular has been clear it would only sign off on future trade deals if the sustainable development provisions were strengthened.  

It’s unclear if today’s announcement will be enough to satisfy the more progressive voices in the Parliament. Green MEP Saskia Bricmont on Tuesday warned that the war in Ukraine is being “instrumentalized to push the negotiation and ratification of more trade agreements” and could put the EU’s climate objectives on hold.

On the other hand, the extra provisions could also make it harder for the EU to convince trade partners to sign up to a deal with Brussels. New Zealand, which is expected to conclude a deal with the EU later this month, isn’t likely to object to sustainable development standards, but in the ongoing negotiations with Australia and India the climate and labor provisions are likely to be a bigger roadblock.

Sarah Anne Aarup contributed reporting.

Brussels says it’s serious about green trade deals

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