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3 July 2015

The ‘social face’ of free trade on the menu of the ETUI Monthly Forum

trade, Lamy

What kind of social and labour clauses will be incorporated into the European Union’s new trade agreements? In securing Pascal Lamy as its guest speaker on this topic, the ETUI found the man probably best equipped to provide an enlightened response to this question thanks to his in-depth knowledge and long experience of the corridors and complexities of international trade. The former head of the WTO reiterated his conviction that free trade and social progress can and must go hand in hand.

Trade liberalisation has the potential to drive growth, to create employment, and to reduce poverty the world over. But to forge a situation – in accordance with the interests of both business and citizens – where this is actually the case requires better cooperation among international organisations. Such is, in substance, the message that the former chief of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) tried to put across in Brussels on 23 June at a Monthly Forum organised jointly by the ETUI and the University of Ghent.

Mr Lamy thus appealed for the ‘Washington consensus’ (the route to prosperity as liberalisation plus privatisation plus deregulation) to be replaced by the ‘Geneva consensus’ or the idea of combining the opening up of markets with support for less advanced countries. Such a transition will, in the view of Mr Lamy, be possible only if the international organisations responsible for trade and for labour and social rights, namely the WTO and the ILO, step up their cooperation.

Tom Jenkins, special adviser at the European Trade Union Confederation, was keen to stress that ‘the European trade unions are not protectionist’. Yet he added that he does expect the EU’s trading partners to apply in their own countries labour standards equivalent to those in force in Europe; he accordingly deplored the fact that ‘a trading partner of the stature of the United States has still not ratified quite a number of ILO conventions’.

Monika Hencsey, representing European Commission DG Trade and seeking to offer reassurance about the approach adopted in the free trade talks, told the audience that the negotiations are at all times rooted in the Commission’s ‘values agenda’ and not in its ‘competitiveness agenda’. She reiterated the Commission’s wish to see civil society organisations, in particular the social partners, play an important role in monitoring implementation of the social measures linked to agreements concluded between the EU and its trading partners.

Lore Van den Putte, of the European studies centre at Ghent University, welcomed these developments but asserted the need to step up involvement of civil society in monitoring the implementation of the social measures linked to the agreements. She was critical, in particular, of the relative lack of involvement of trade unions from the Central and South American countries with which the EU has concluded trade agreements in recent years.

A report of the meeting will follow in August. Please check this webpage regularly.

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