Book Review: The Trade-Development Nexus in the European Union

Maurizio Carbone and Jan Orbie, The Trade-Development Nexus in the European Union. Differentiation, coherence and norms (London, New York: Routledge, 2015). 132 pp., £95,00 (hardback), ISBN: 9781138816701.

The nexus between trade and development has been crucial within the European Union (EU)’s common commercial policy since at least the first Lomé Convention in 1976. Under the Convention, the EU essentially granted preferential access, aid, and investment to former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific (ACP). In the 1990s, the neoliberal agenda encapsulated in the World Trade Organization (WTO) agenda reduced the policy space for these kinds of agreements, forcing the EU to substitute the Lomé Conventions with the Cotonou agreement in the year 2000. In general, the pervasiveness of the neoliberal discourse and the rising diversification of development paths in developing countries have somehow led the European Union to rethink its approach to preferential trade agreements, aid for trade, and the complex dynamics between development imperatives and commercial interests at large.

A very rich and detailed account of all these issues is presented in this book edited by Maurizio Carbone and Jan Orbie, which is actually a reprinting of a special issue (March 2014) of the journal Contemporary Politics. We learn from the introduction that differentiation, policy coherence, and norms are the focus of the collective work, with the purpose of assessing the evolution of the nexus between trade and development while at the same time shedding light on the challenges the EU has to address in order to increase the credibility, and thus the effectiveness, of its trade policy vis-à-vis developing countries.

As far as differentiation is concerned, it seems that since the adoption of EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson’s Global Europe agenda in 2006, on the one hand, the EU has put economic interests above other considerations, favoring free trade agreements with emerging powers, and on the other hand, Brussels has shifted toward reciprocity in dealings with the developing world and also gradually phasing out the general system of preferences for upper-middle income countries (Stephen Woolcock and Gabriel Siles-Brügge respectively address these aspects in their chapters).

On coherence—or rather, (not surprisingly) incoherence—between trade policy and other policies of the European Union, the volume examines horizontal, multilateral, and partner coherence. For instance, tensions between Directorate General trade and Directorate General development are highlighted in Carbone’s chapter, while Patrick Holden underlines how different discourses on regional integration, the free market, and pro-poor actions often collide, an exception being high coherence in the policy of sanctions between trade, development, and foreign policy (Clara Portela and Jan Orbie). Multilateral coherence (referring to the EU’s relationship with international organizations) is examined under the lenses of International Labour Organization policies (Mark Langan on decent work) or the OECD Development Assistance Committee (Carbone on untying aid), but it is logically intertwined with partner coherence (the need to offer partners a practice in line with official discourse), such as in Patrick Holden’s chapter on the WTO and the EU’s aid for trade policy.

A third and final dichotomy in the book regards norms and interests because in the literature, some influential voices argue that the EU has become more similar to a self-interested realist power, thereby de facto abandoning (or at least strongly qualifying) its stance as a normative power or a “benign partner” (see Anders Ahnlid and Ole Elgström’s contribution), which has always presumably been the defining feature of the EU as a global actor. In other words, the EU seems more and more interested in promoting its commercial interests at the expense of meaningful and sustainable development of local economies. Why is this so? Apart from the self-evident need after the Great Recession to tap into external markets’ demand to help the recovery of the European economies, the authors offer some tentative explanations. For example, Siles-Brügge puts forward a political economy explanation, arguing that the EU is in search of open markets for its companies, and everything else is subordinated to acquiring and keeping leverage in free trade negotiations. Ahnlid and Elgström look to role theory to explain how the new EU realism might be seen as a reaction to the increasing role emerging economic giants claim on the global scene. Tony Heron refers to constructivist and historical arguments to explain how the problems with the reform of the ACP trade regime were caused by a divergence between institutional paths and ideas, with the former prevailing over the latter. Holden makes use of critical discourse analysis to give evidence of the deep undercurrent tensions in the EU’s flow of policies and discourses on development and trade. Finally, under a “moral economy” perspective, Langan shows how the Economic Partnership Agreements will have “deleterious consequences for the lives of many poorer producers and workers in ACP countries,” and he points out that a serious reflection on possible alternative instruments is needed in order to overcome the “normativity-outcomes gap” that is weakening the EU’s foreign policy consistency.

The general impression the reader gets from the valuable contribution to the literature found in this fascinating book is that political and economic differentiation among developing countries has found the European Union rather unprepared to smoothly adjust its trade and development nexus, and, consequently, the EU reaction (also influenced by the EU’s own internal dynamics) has led to general incoherence in a general environment of norm confusion, to the extent that Alasdair R. Young in the conclusive chapter talks about “a lack of common understanding of what a norm is.” This seems to be quite a poor achievement for a regional bloc that is, as Carbone and Orbie pointedly remark in the introduction, “‘the world’s largest trading power…, the biggest importer of products from developing countries…, [and] the largest provider of development assistance.” Indeed, the EU looks like a confused actor striving to find its way within a rapidly evolving international order, with a real gap between (strong) power resources and (weak) effectiveness. It might also be the case that beyond the pro-poor rhetoric, the European trade policy under the present Commission, made explicit by the 2015 Communication “Trade for all,” has a real focus on delivering economic opportunities’ for “consumers, workers and small companies” alike within the EU market, sending development concerns to the margins of the discourse.

The EU, in fact, seems to be aware of contradictions in the trade-development nexus given that the new Horizon 2020 call for research projects also includes the specific theme of assessing the coherence of the EU trade policy with all other relevant EU policies. This is a welcoming sign: as Carbone and Orbie write at the end of their conclusion, it is necessary “to move beyond Brussels-centric analyses and concentrate on the effective impact of the EU’s trade-development policies on the ground,” adopting a clear interdisciplinary approach. In the meantime, this volume provides a wealth of knowledge and a true starting point for future research.

Giuseppe Gabusi, University of Turin

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