The conference ‘Europe in action: international trade in today’s and tomorrow’s Europe’, which took place at the European Parliament on the 6th of March, was an important occasion to discuss the role played by the European Union in international trade. Promoted by Salvatore Cicu (MEP), the event saw the participation of representatives from the Belgian-Italian Chamber of Commerce, the Committee on International Trade (INTA), Confindustria, Confartigianato, Confagricoltura, Coldiretti, Export USA, AEGIS Europe, CNA, and CIA Agricoltori Italiani. Significant was also the contribution of Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament.
After Cicu’s opening remarks, DG TRADE Sandra Gallina presented her observations on the issue. With a break-down of the main international agreements in place and under negotiation, she efficiently depicted how the EU is interacting with countries and regions around the world. Among the new treaties, the Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan (which entered into force the 1st of February 2019) is certainly the most recent achievement: as a matter of fact, it secures the opening of services markets, in particular financial services, e-commerce, telecommunications and transport. Other notable agreements that are on their way are the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and the EU-Vietnam Trade Agreement, which are only waiting for the final signature before entering into force. The EU is also active in updating old treaties, as testified by the commitment in restructuring the agreements with Mexico and Chile; when approved, these new treaties will substitute previous arrangements of 2000 and 2002, respectively. Finally, agreements with Mercosur, Australia and New Zealand are some of the treaties that Gallina mentioned as currently under negotiation.
However, the DG TRADE representative pointed out that, when it comes to the enforcement of such agreements, things are not as easy. Member States here often lack a common line of action – sometimes they are not sure which decision to take, other times some of them prefer to keep the status quo. Nevertheless, unity is something that the EU can obtain only by showing commitment and by working hard every day. Gallina’s observation was largely shared by the speakers: elaborating on the topic, Franck Proust (MEP) underlined for example that the absence of a united front encourages unfair competition. He also stated that it is important to have a modern system of rules in order to guarantee fair competition in international trade. President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani was on the same page: ‘I believe that one of the main reforms that the EU needs regards regulating competition. […] In the current situation, we have competition rules that are good if we were in the 1960s – they cannot be applied to today’s situation, because the geopolitical scenario is completely different’.
Indeed, the Soviet Union no longer exists and nowadays the EU has to deal with emerging – and promising – actors like China, India or African countries. In particular, the case of China was another theme resonating throughout the whole conference: Gallina affirmed that the EU had started seeking for a trade agreement with the Asian country, but it is extremely difficult to create a fruitful dialogue. As a matter of fact, it is more complicated to confront with China because of its state capitalism, which is a different system to the one of the EU. Santiago Fisas Ayxelà (MEP), from INTA, pointed out that Chinese presence in the African continent is also becoming a problem. In 2015 the EU created the Africa Investment Platform (AIP) to support sustainable growth in Africa, with the aim of fostering investments and of having a positive impact on the socio-economic development (such as infrastructures in transport, communication, water, energy as well as agriculture and private sector development). However, more than once African countries have preferred to entrust China with infrastructure projects, justifying themselves by saying that it is faster and takes less paperwork. In his closing remarks, Tajani expressed his opinion on the matter, stating that it is important that Africa remains part of the dialogue with the EU.
To conclude, it is obvious that the future of international trade is in extra-EU countries, and indeed, the EU is committed in keeping the dialogue open with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, there are also challenges for the time to come: in order to stay relevant on the international scenario, it is fundamental not only that the EU stays united and competitive, but also that it puts into place new rules that assure fair trade.