Summary and Keywords
In 1958, the European Economic Community was formed as a customs union with a common external tariff. From then on, the Common Commercial Policy—also known as the European Union’s (EU) trade policy—served as the interface between the increasingly integrated common market and its external trade partners.
Like the creation of the single market, contemporary trade policy has long transcended discussions about tariffs and quotas at the border and has focused increasingly on the impediments to trade caused by regulatory divergences. Whether they concern agricultural subsidies or cultural protections, rules on public procurement or food standards, insofar as a regulation discriminates against exporters, it can potentially be part of a trade negotiation. The evolving nature of trade policy has triggered a redefinition of both the scope of the EU’s exclusive competencies as well as the procedures to govern this policy domain.
The central actor in EU trade policy is the European Commission, which is the designated negotiator for external trade agreements. Whereas member states always played a crucial role in overseeing such negotiations in the Council, the European Parliament has only taken up a position of power since 2009. Beyond securing market access abroad and protecting domestic sectors at home, post-material values have come to feature more prominently in the balancing act of contemporary trade discussions. This has galvanized a far wider range of societal actors to lobby the EU institutions in order to tilt the balance in their favor.
Complicating matters even further, the EU conducts a large part of its foreign policy through the Common Commercial Policy. Contrary to most other instruments of the EU’s external action, trade policy is an exclusive competency of the EU. Fostering development, promoting stability, providing humanitarian aid, and the promotion and enforcement of human rights and sustainable development commitments are but a few of the many objectives pursued via trade policy. However, there are clear limitations to the fungibility of the EU’s large market power for foreign policy objectives.
It should therefore be clear that the literature on the Common Commercial Policy is extremely diverse. Situated at the nexus of international political economy, regulatory governance, and foreign policy, it has become a well-studied policy domain through a great variety of theoretical and disciplinary lenses. The prominence of trade scholarship in EU studies is unlikely to change soon as developments at the international level, where the Western liberal order is under increasing pressure, but also domestically, where the contestation of several trade negotiations and the position of trade policy within the EU’s broader external action, are set to animate future debates.
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