The Directorate General of Trade of the European Union (DG TRADE) in its Trade for All[1] document published in 2015 established the general lines of the European Commission in the field of trade. The document appealed on the one hand to the responsibility of all stakeholders in the practice of EU Trade with third countries and aimed on the other hand at new private public investment policies that encouraged the commitment of private sector in those countries to promote economic development for all peoples.

In the introduction of the document, the EU Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström addressed both those who believe that trade should be the economic engine of the EU and those that, decades after the creation of the World Trade Organization, continued to question economic liberalism as a model for economic growth and development aid. It seemed as if the experience of Commissioner Malmström as Head of DG Home Affairs in the period 2010-2014 would have made her understand that the dignity of people should be at the centre of any policy. The Commissioner spoke shamelessly about human rights, sustainable development, environment and public services as if these principles were integrated in their way of acting. Moreover, the document pointed out that trade was not about interests but also about values. It seemed a text inspired by solidarity among peoples and committed to development.

Four years later, the EU’s commercial strategy to create new trade agreements remains unsuccessful in many ways. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the EU and the States have been blocked; the Free Trade Agreements between the EU and Africa and Latin American countries have hardly advanced in recent years; and the attitude of the new administration of the United States threatens an unprecedented trade war with China. The same threat of trade war looms over the heads of its traditional allies in the EU. In addition, the announced measures of more responsible trade have not materialized in inclusive trade rules that allow Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030.

Since the approval of Trade for All, none of the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the EU and African countries have included, modified or implemented any chapters about sustainable trade, human rights, transparency, equal opportunities between men and women, the participation of civil society or provisions from the Paris Agreement 2015. The mandate of Commissioner Malmström is about to end without binding rules that allow us to continue believing in the willingness of the Commission to make trade an instrument of change in developing countries, especially in Africa.

And so, the DG Trade advances slowly, almost silently, without renouncing trade agreements with Africa where the EU wants to continue strengthening its control and above all ensure its access to raw materials in competition with countries such as China or Brazil. Implementation of the EPAs has made progress with some southern African countries, mainly SADC, but failed to advance with strong countries, such as Nigeria in ECOWAS or Tanzania in East Africa; these have rejected the ratification and implementation of new EPAs both for themselves and their region.

This summer, as in the last 30 years, many vessels and motorboats loaded with people from Africa have reached the European coasts, not counting those who have died during the journey or drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. These immigrants risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean because they lack economic and labour opportunities in their own countries, often because of the inability of their own governments to manage their economic resources but sometimes because of the macroeconomic policies imposed on developing countries. These policies make African countries economically dependent on powers such as the EU or North America that impose their rules and conditions, triggering the loss of jobs and economic opportunities and forcing people to emigrate. It was in the context of this humanitarian crisis that the EU leaders drew up joint EU strategies to tackle the problem of irregular immigration last June; these were frightening measures, so-called ‘aid for development’ that took the form of reception camps to retain migrants both in Europe and in Africa.

But trade policies are not alone in being a failure during Junker’s tenure as head of the European Commission. The investment policies of the EU External Investment Plan (EIP)[2] in Africa emerged as a strategy to encourage private investment in developing countries that would be beneficial for those countries and at the same time give legal security to European investors. The EIP identified the objective of economic growth through the creation of employment and sustainable development for tackling the causes of irregular migration. Once again, the EU appealed to the values ​​and principles of EU solidarity to carry out economic activities that promote the interests of only their companies, as well as strategic security. Thus, the EIP fosters investment in profitable sources of energy, agro-industry (that supplies agricultural products to European countries) and the digitalization of the market that facilitates the commercial transactions of major companies between Africa and Europe.

Certainly, the EU is one of the largest investors in Africa and in development aid. Almost 60% of global aid is financed by European partners. But often the EU forgets to evaluate the benefits it obtains from its commercial and investment on the African continent, how many European companies are currently operating on the continent, what benefits they get and how much tax they pay in the countries of origin. It is evident that they do not have much data because there is no transparency or no legally-binding regulations to force big companies to do so. Therefore, if the EU wants to renew its commitment to Africa in the Post-Cotonou Agreement from 2020, it should integrate its principles and values in trade agreements in a more effective way through provisions that ensure the responsibility of large companies regarding human rights, the environment and sustainability.


José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda

Trade Policy Officer

[1] Trade for All, European Commission DG Trade

[2] International Cooperation and Development