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Parity in name alone? EU’s engagement with partner countries’ stakeholders on sustainable development chapters in trade agreements

Diana Potjomkina

In response to growing public interest to how the EU’s trading practices affect the rest of the world, the new generation of the EU’s free trade agreements – starting from the one with Korea – includes chapters on trade and sustainable development (TSD chapters). The purpose is to ensure that trade relations do not have negative repercussions on environment, labour rights and long-term economic prospects of the partner countries. Towards this goal, the agreements stipulate establishment of civil society mechanisms, such as Domestic Advisory Groups and Civil Society Fora. Civil society, in broad sense, is seen as an independent player who can assist the partners in identifying problems and improving implementation of the trade agreements with sustainability in mind. In principle, since the EU’s trade agreements require approximation from partner countries, partner countries’ representatives could also be expected to have a significant role in the monitoring process.The aim of this paper is to problematize the EU’s engagement with its partner countries on trade and sustainable development issues, exploring the diverse power relations existing around and within civil society mechanisms. It looks at the ideational aspects of the mechanisms, such as mutual perceptions of their participants, perception of civil society by the European Commission and partner states’ authorities, as well as the role that is, in practice, accorded to civil society recommendations expressed by EU or partner countries’ representatives. It pays attention to the structural factors, namely, overall environment that the EU and partner countries’ authorities offer to civil society. Furthermore, the paper also explores whether and how the procedures used for consulting civil society influence the power balance. Seemingly minor, logistical aspects, such as the way of selecting civil society representatives, availability of travel funding or translation options in the meetings, influence stakeholders’ opportunities to speak and be heard and can affect different stakeholders in different ways. The tentative conclusion is that while, nominally, representatives of the EU and partner countries’ civil society are equal in standing, in practice, a combination of ideational and institutional factors relegates partners’ voices to the background. This further hinders the already difficult task of promoting sustainable development through the EU’s trade policy. This paper will be based on participant observation of civil society meetings, interviews with stakeholders on both EU and partner countries’ sides, as well as analysis of documents.

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