The EU’s free trade agreement with Canada (CETA) and the ultimately unsuccessful negotiations over a trade agreement with the United States (TTIP) proved extremely controversial. But why were these two initiatives, as opposed to those the EU has agreed with other countries, so heavily politicised? Francesco Duina argues the explanation lies in the values and identities which were at stake: for many observers, the argument went beyond the specifics of trade and became a highly symbolic debate about the European versus American way of life.

In the last two decades or so, the EU has pursued trade initiatives with many countries and trading blocs. The Commission keeps an updated online record of these. The impressive list of partners includes Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, and China and blocs such as ASEAN and Mercosur. The majority of these initiatives have progressed largely unnoticed: the public, media, interest groups, and politicians have raised few concerns, EU officials have been able to work with little resistance from domestic actors, and ratification (for concluded deals) has gone smoothly. Matters, however, went very differently with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States and the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Both TTIP and CETA experienced what social scientists call intense ‘politicisation’. Massive citizen protests against both took place across Europe. In October 2015, for instance, 150,000 people marched in Berlin demanding the end of TTIP negotiations. Coalitions such as Stop TTIP (a network of 483 organisations across Europe) and 455 civil society groups (including Greenpeace Europe, the European Federation of Public Service Unions, six national chapters of Friends of the Earth, Slow Food Italy, and many other prominent organisations) launched public campaigns against both TTIP and CETA. A major European Citizens’ Initiative, backed by over 3 million citizens, challenged directly the Commission. Anti-CETA protesters even stormed the European Council in Brussels. The events received considerable attention in newspapers, television stations, internet blogs, and other venues.

In the end, TTIP came to a stall due to difficulties (and loss of interest, especially from the United States once the Trump Administration took office) and CETA was agreed to. But then CETA’s ratification also proved to be exceedingly difficult, with Wallonia, in Belgium, acting as the last holdout of the resistance. ‘The battle for CETA’, tweeted EU Council President Donald Tusk, ‘was highly emotional’. It became, according to Paul Magnette, then Minister-President of Wallonia, a ‘soap opera’ as the Wallonian government refused to approve it. ‘A four-letter word, CETA’, Magnette wrote in the Guardian, ‘resonated on factory floors and offices, in homes, schools and cafes the length and breadth of Wallonia’. Wallonia desisted only when the Commission took the unprecedented step of negotiating with a member state’s region. ‘That such an obscure topic as an economic and trade agreement should be the subject of such popular debate and controversy’, continued Magnette, ‘is a phenomenon in itself.’

Credit: Mehr Demokratie (CC BY-NC 2.0)

What can explain such politicisation of TTIP and CETA? In a recent study, I proposed a perspective informed by economic sociology. For economic sociologists, exchanges in markets never occur in a void and are instead always ‘embedded’ in cultural contexts. Goods and services reflect and assert shared understandings of the world: they are therefore always ‘more’ than their technical specifications. Traditions, consumption patterns and rituals, producers, and other forces infuse them with a range of attributes, such as ‘healthy, ‘stylish’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘risky’, and ‘moral’. Thus, in one word, market exchanges always involve values and, with that, identities (i.e., notions of self and others).

Trade agreements are explicit efforts to create new markets. As such, they necessarily involve values and identities. The point is especially relevant for the new generation (i.e. those of the last couple of decades) of EU trade deals. This is because, unlike the trade initiatives of the 1980s or even earlier, these agreements go beyond the removal of tariff barriers and entail complex regulatory issues. What constitutes healthy food? When can something be called energy efficient? When can car seat belts be considered safe? What is a doctor? Who can serve as an accountant? Negotiating and settling on these questions is far more than a technical matter.

It follows that many of the EU’s current trade initiatives have in fact the potential for politicisation. What set TTIP and CETA apart, in this context, is the importance of the values and identities at stake in those agreements. Critics saw in the highly technical regulatory issues of TTIP and CETA what we may call ‘fundamental’ – i.e. seen as defining by the affected actors – values and identities as the EU faced divergent perspectives from two countries – the United States and Canada – considered to be major competitors and regular reference points. The deals acquired great symbolic, even existential, significance.

Specifically, two issues above all proved to be extraordinarily sensitive: GMOs and hormone beef. Prior to the TTIP and CETA negotiations, Europeans had placed major restrictions on GMOs, and banned altogether the latter. They adopted the ‘precautionary’ principle: GMOs and hormone beef should be banned unless proof of their safety is rendered. In the US and Canada, both GMOs and hormone beef were treated as any other food product – and were permitted unless proof of them being harmful is produced (precisely the opposite of the European approach). Driving the European approaches were deeply held commitments – at least according to some key actors – around food quality, animal welfare, the environment, and what it means to be European. Many Europeans saw in the North American approach a corporate and market-friendly logic dismissive of quality, health, and the environment.

At stake, for many Europeans, was thus the European versus American way of life. European civil society associations, small business groups, farmers’ associations, and others accordingly mobilised. Will Europe’s appreciation for food quality and traditions, consumer health, and animal welfare – they asked – be squashed by multinational corporations’ interests and North American neoliberal capitalist culture? EU officials responded by embarking on public campaigns of reassurance. These dynamics constituted the core of the politicisation process.

This sociological explanation departs from most existing accounts of the politicisation of EU trade policies. These focus on the institutional changes brought about by the Lisbon Treaty (such as the increased involvement of the European Parliament) – important matters, to be sure, but not capable of explaining why TTIP and CETA in particular experienced such intense politicisation. They also focus on the role of political ‘entrepreneurs’ eager to achieve their electoral objectives – something that cannot apply to TTIP and CETA, given that civil society actors led the process of contestation.

The sociological explanation does build on an emergent body of scholarship emphasising the regulatory content of the new EU trade agreements. But it does so by putting culture squarely at the centre of its explanatory framework. If accurate, it is likely to be relevant in the future, as the EU continues to pursue new agreements and a new round of talks may start again with the US.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Francesco Duina – Bates College
Francesco Duina is a Professor of Sociology and European Studies at Bates College.

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