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Perspectives: In praise of trade negotiators

At what is perhaps the worst time since 1945 for world trade, we must recognise that we need more than the skills and experience of good trade negotiators.

At the end of September, the EU’s head of agriculture trade negotiations, John Clarke, retired after a distinguished 30 years with the European Commission.

One of a declining number of UK nationals remaining in the EU executive body after Brexit, his Yorkshire roots had never been far from the surface, not least on his twitter feed.

For an EU official to have had such a public presence in social and normal media will have been one of the many changes to the job compared to his arrival. Others with similar levels of experience, such as the UK’s chief negotiator Crawford Falconer, have been less keen to establish such a public persona.

Reticence to establish a public profile  as a civil servant is understandable: being a trade official is already a difficult job. True, there is the chance to travel,. But then one needs to work round the clock in often unglamorous meeting rooms such as the Borschette building in Brussels while dealing with the suspicion that too much would be given away to third countries.

Trade officials can of course be satisfied they did a good job when an agreement is completed. But it will be politicians taking the credit if things go well, and increasingly spread the blame when they don’t. Meanwhile not all stakeholders will be happy, and constantly dealing with them can be wearying.

The trade negotiators’ skills will have supplemented that of politicians in concluding the deal, perhaps even it is mostly their skills that create the conditions for key breakthroughs in negotiations.

Today, as we move into a new age of trade politics, such experience and skills are even more valuable.

For where once governments could rely on business to provide a base of support, this can no longer be taken for granted as politicians and corporates appear to be diverging in their agendas.

Traditional trade official work: balancing stakeholders and third countries

In retrospect the period between 1995 when the World Trade Organization was established and 2016 with the collapse of EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations was a simpler time in trade politics.

The goal of the EU was largely to advance trade liberalisation through bilateral free trade and association agreements.

The fact that Doha Round at the WTO collapsed should not however obscure the general success of what the EU was attempting.

During this period EU trade agreements became every more complex. Early agreements with the likes of Chile and Israel are ‘thin’ in their content when compared to the CETA deal signed many years later with Canada. Even those early deals were not straightforward however, given that negotiators were dealing with a perennially defensive EU agriculture sector.

Street protests in Europe against the deals and other political difficulties were ever present risks, but EU negotiators can be considered successful in their job of balancing political aims, the expectations of different stakeholders, and of course the interests of the third countries concerned.

As agreements took in more detail on regulatory barriers, sustainable development, and intellectual property among others, simply understanding the whole text became a challenge. Once again, officials rose to the challenge.

A public profile for negotiators

TTIP talks opened a period of dramatic change in trade politics. Any negotiations with the US always can breed greater mistrust and public protests in Europe than negotiations with other countries. But the negotiations came at a time of growing social media use which took the level of campaigning to a new level.

Starting with the Brussels’ TTIP negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero, down to member state officials such as this writer in those times when working for the UK government, officials were, willingly or not, thrust into a public position.

For many this was an uncomfortable process. These was a belief among officials, often shared by stakeholders, that politicians were the only ones who should have the public spotlight and the need to explain themselves.

By and large, though, trade negotiators simply took the new responsibilities in their stride. At public meetings and conferences across Europe they made the case for trade in general and this deal in particular.

That wasn’t enough to save TTIP. Traditional EU-US differences in public procurement and agriculture added to suspicions over Investor State Dispute Settlement were not overcome.

For the wider agenda of the time though arguably these efforts did stop contagion, and helped bring new EU free trade agreements, including with Canada and Japan, over the finish line.

Balancing corporates and governments in a time of deep political divides

Today the EU is still negotiating traditional free trade negotiations with Australia, Mercosur, and India among others.

The focus of trade official time is however clearly shifting, to unilateral regulations such as on deforestation or carbon border pricing, to holding more ‘dialogues’ such as the Trade and Technology Council with the US, and dealing with emerging issues around ‘de-risking’ supply chains.

Trade policy in the 2020s covers more subjects, with more tools, and even greater public scrutiny.

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, politicians are increasingly suspicious of globalisation and seeking more local solutions and results. This brings them into potential conflict with the multinational corporations that account for the majority of trade.

Once again, it will mostly be left to trade officials to seek some coherence between competing objectives, bridging the gap between local solutions and working with third countries, between growth versus erecting trade barriers, and many more.

So far they have done so, just about, with some success.

Though the above-mentioned unilateral regulations are undermining the WTO, they are being balanced with political engagement in Geneva to at least demonstrate the importance of multilateral rules. Government interference in supply chains is being restricted to a certain degree. There remain hopes of at least completing the Australia deal by the end of the year.

Rarely is it fashionable in most countries to praise officials, least of all those negotiating with other countries. That’s generally unfair.

Now, at perhaps the worst time since 1945 for world trade, we should more than ever recognise that we need the skills and experience of good trade negotiators.


 David Henig runs the column ‘Perspectives’ on the politics of global trade for Borderlex. He is also a UK director at the think tank ECIPE.

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