European Union trade policy isn’t delivering: progress on securing new agreements has been slow. Member States need to take their share of responsibility for that, there has been a general shift in tone away from efficiency in trade towards security which has seen the political momentum behind the free trade agenda falter in Europe. At the same time two of its biggest trading partners the US and China have both followed a more isolationist, protectionist approach to trade.

That’s the stark assessment of ECIPE, the European Centre for International Political Economy, in a report titled Trading Up: An EU Trade Policy for Better Market Access and Resilient Sourcing. The report was the focus of a debate, hosted by ECIPE. The report and the event were sponsored by Europe Unlocked.

The report blames the lack of political commitment to pursuing free trade on splits within the European Commission and between member states, as well as on the shift among many trading partners away from free trade.

It’s a dispute between those that support open trade with the EU’s trading partners around the world, and others that want to follow the US and China down a more isolationist road.

In her keynote speech at the event, Sabine Weyand, Europe’s top civil servant in charge of trade, made it clear that she supports trade diversification and integrated policy approaches ensuring that our own internal policies do not negatively impact our trade relations.

However, she also warned that the world has moved on from the 1990s and early 2000s, when there was widespread support for free trade around the world. Strains on trade relations and supply chains have intensified in recent years due to war and Covid, Weyand said. There’s been “an inward turn in economic policy, and a new focus on economic security”, she said.

In recent years “interdependence (of global trading partners) has been seen as a risk rather than an opportunity. We need a paradigm change from this,” she said.

There’s a lot at stake for Europe in particular. Its share of world trade stands at 15%. With slower economic growth here, Europe risks falling behind.  “We need a more attractive offer. Our weight in the world is declining,” she said.

The challenge is to push for open trade while at the same time standing up to protectionist measures of others, Weyand said.

The burning question now is what approach the new European Commission, due to take office in the autumn, will take? Will we see further underperformance in trade? Or will the next Commission deliver more in terms of trade promotion rather than protection?

Europe Unlocked believes it is essential that the balance should shift towards promotion and market access. The Commission would do well to look at ECIPE’s recommendations in this regard.

To name a few, it recommends modernizing existing free trade agreements (FTAs) with Latin America, Australia and Asia. It also calls for the EU to strike ‘mini deals’ – sectoral agreements in areas where global regulatory requirements diverge.

Europe Unlocked, believes that competitiveness and open markets should be at the heart of the policy programme for the next Commission. International trade beyond Europe’s borders is a necessity for a more competitive and therefore more prosperous Europe.