International Relations/Political Science
04 March 2021

Exploring the Politicisation of EU Free Trade Agreements Negotiations

There has been an increasing politicisation of EU free trade agreements negotiations, which has often translated into obstacles to ratification. In his master dissertation, Leopoldo Biffi sheds light on the public-policy processes underlying this evolution and points out the key, yet undertheorised, role played by civil society advocacy groups. His findings, which he details in this interview, won him the 2020 International Relations/Political Science Department Prize and are now published in open access as part of the Graduate Institute ePapers, thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

My choice of this topic came as a function of my combined interest in international negotiations and EU governance, which pushed me to explore interactions between the two domains by specifically looking at trade policy.

What is the main purpose of this paper? 

Its main purpose is to shed light on the public-policy processes through which the political salience witnessed by EU trade negotiations translates into formal institutional obstacles faced by a trade negotiator like the Commission in the execution of its mandate. The choice of tackling this specific issue was motivated by the intention to locate my work in both the international-negotiation and public-policy debates around trade agreements. Looking at negotiation dynamics, the increased salience that free trade agreements (FTAs) have gained in the EU public debate signals the two-level nature of trade deals, whose conclusion is ultimately conditional upon domestic political backing by constituents – as theorised by Robert D. Putnam (1988). In a second step, the intention to look more closely at constituency-level dynamics has offered me the opportunity to explore the specific mechanisms through which FTA provisions become contentious in the processes leading to ratification. To that end, the proposed notion of political ratification obstacles (PROs) seeks to account for the process through which contentious trade issues make their way to the EU political arena, through public and parliamentary debates, expert groups, political protests, and translate into formal vetoes that place formal obstacles to the conclusion of FTAs. In other words, my work seeks to look in greater depth at the key political drives behind the two-level dynamics governing EU trade. 

What about your methodology?

It is a qualitative one and is focused on a restricted number of EU FTAs examined in depth through multiple variables. These include, inter alia, the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the recent EU-Mercosur agreement in principle. 

Can you tell us about your major findings?

The EU is a powerful case in showing us how genuinely political commercial negotiations and policies can become, even if relevant processes are largely Brussels-based and take place away from national political arenas. The EU’s post-Lisbon trade ambitiousness has coupled with an unparalleled centrality and politicisation of trade agreements whereby civil-society claims and actors have gained unparalleled prominence. Over the past decade, the increased weight acquired by sustainability issues, climate change, labour rights, food safety and sanitary standards has coupled with the rising awareness of how trade agreements (especially when these involve a vast market like the EU) can deeply impact on these domains and that it is therefore imperative to simply “get them right”. In this context, advocacy actors emerge as vocal players informing EU debates around trade policy, and shaping the odds of trade agreements making it or not to final ratification – often to a larger extent than more traditionally theorised business interest groups.

What are you doing now?

I am currently working in the field of public affairs consultancy in the United Kingdom, one of my main foci being EU digital and tech policies.

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This e-paper was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Leopoldo Biffi’s master dissertation in International Relations/Political Science (supervisor: Cédric Dupont), which won the 2020 International Relations/Political Science Department Prize.

Full citation of the e-paper:
Biffi, Leopoldo. Too Complex or Too Ambitious? Exploring Hurdles in the Enforcement of EU Free Trade Agreements. Graduate Institute ePaper 34. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2021.

Interview edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Ralf Gosch/