Though the EU fashions itself as a legislative trend-setter keen to foster international trade connections, putting this into practice is easier said than done. Countries embroiled in lengthy trade negotiations with the bloc, like Canada and Australia, know this all too well. Our latest #BrusselsCalling media debate set out to explore the challenges third countries face when doing business in Europe. On May 16, the Ambassador of Canada to the EU, Dr. Ailish Campbell, showcased her moderating prowess alongside a panel of reporters including Raziye Akkoc (AFP), Andy Bounds (Financial Times), Jeremy Fleming-Jones (Euronews), and Joanna Sopinska (MLex). Here’s what we learned. 

01. Politicising trade 

For voters across the EU Member States, trade tends to be a second-order issue. It doesn’t resonate with the electorates immediately, as Jeremy Fleming-Jones notes, and it is up to the reporters to highlight the impact high-level debates have on the average citizens. Joanna Sopinska seconds this sentiment, noting that trade ranks pretty low on parties’ agendas ahead of the European Parliament election on 6-9 June. In political manifestos, only the biggest groups mention trade, though still lacking a nuanced view. Brussels-bubble trade buzzwords like “open strategic autonomy” or “de-risking” are in vogue, but none of the parties have a global vision for the EU trade policy. 

02. Coming in hot… but not too hot! 

Still, interest in trade policy has been on an upward trajectory, Sopinska notes. “When I arrived in 2006, nobody talked about it.” Trade used to be relegated to foreign affairs reporters, rather than specialised journalists. Since opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and subsequent protests, interest in trade has suddenly erupted. But careful what you wish for, Fleming-Jones warns – trade is one of the issues that becomes sexier the more disputes there are, but nobody wants to see blood and guts on the front page. Andy Bounds argues that trade is only as exciting as the topics it discusses. Chinese lingerie and agricultural products like olives, cognac and frites make trade more fun to read about. The winning recipe for mainstreaming trade, according to Raziye Akkoc, is for the European Commission to communicate more efficiently about it. 

03. Open vs closed 

Of course, the hottest trade topic recently is the EU’s anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese EVs. As Dr. Campbell notes, nobody wants to be the last market standing against big players like China. Akkoc acknowledges that most big European parties are advocating for open trade, as the EU made little headway on concluding Free Trade Agreements in the last mandate. But the issue becomes more complicated when looking at specific EU countries and their needs, such as the Polish government opposing free tariffs on Ukrainian grain. Though, Sopinska notes, the Ukrainian grain issue has certainly become less of a trade and more of a political debate. Poland is not the only contrarian, though, with France, the Netherlands and Ireland staunchly against the Mercosur FTA due to deforestation and agriculture concerns. Ultimately, Bounds says, people are keen to attend anti-free trade rallies, but not wave banners in favour of FTAs. The EU wants open trade strictly on its own terms, making conditional offers to partners like Indonesia. 

04. More than FTAs 

While concluding FTAs proves ever more challenging, the EU might need to turn to smaller agreements with more flexibility. The rigid way of making trade deals is being swapped for more sectoral agreements, like digital partnerships with Japan and South Korea, Sopinska points out. The EU-US Trade and Technology Council is also an example of an alternative form of trade cooperation. Fleming-Jones is not optimistic about its future, as the prospect of Trump being elected president looms over the discussions. With the WTO also in a tough spot, the EU and its 27 members are at a disadvantage. The internal state-aid system relies on an honest international broker and swift arbitration, which the WTO can no longer provide. In its absence, the EU might have to move from playing defence to hardballing third countries such as China, though this may ultimately lead to higher prices for consumers, Bounds concludes. After all, securing supply chains while protecting jobs and keeping prices low is like trying to square a circle.