Trade policy

In brief

The common trade policy is an exclusive competence of the European Union. The European Commission is the key player in trade negotiations, under the control of Member States and the European Parliament. In accordance with the Treaty of Lisbon, the Commission conducts tariff and trade negotiations with third party States or with international organisations, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Commission consults with the EU Member States within the Trade Policy Committee (TPC). With regards to trade negotiations with third countries, the Commission receives a negotiation mandate through which the Council authorises it to begin negotiations and to conduct them under certain conditions. These negotiations are conducted by the Commission in consultation with the Trade Policy Committee and within the framework of any negotiation directives that may be issued by the Council.

In Belgium, the Directorate General for European Affairs and Coordination (DGE) of the FPS Foreign Affairs is responsible for the preparation, definition, coordination, representation, defence and monitoring of Belgium's European policy. The DGE prepares the Belgian decision process so that our country can speak with one voice in the Council of the EU and promote its interests. This is done through weekly consultation and coordination of the competent federal and federated bodies. Furthermore, the DGE assists the Minister in his responses to parliamentary questions, in order to clarify the Belgian position after coordination has taken place. It is also important to highlight the work of the DGE within the expert meetings, in distributing information to diplomatic posts, bilateral contacts with the directorates-general of the European Commission and in building alliances with other European delegations.

Objectives for Belgium

The four main objectives are the following:

  • Opening up foreign markets to promote growth and employment,
  • Facilitating the creation of global rules,
  • Integrating developing countries,
  • Ensuring compliance with the rules.

The EU takes a multi-faceted approach in terms of trade policy. First and foremost, the EU and Belgium have always preferred the multilateral path, because this does not only allow for the expansion of trade opportunities for our companies, but it also helps to integrate developing countries into the international trade system, a major concern of Belgium and the EU. Our country also welcomes the fact that the European Union will be one of the first to ratify the Agreement on Trade Facilitation which entered into force on 22/02, after approval by two thirds of the WTO members. Belgium also looks forward in making the 11th Ministerial Conference of the WTO successful. In times of increased protectionism, this is of vital importance.

Nevertheless, following the difficulties encountered in multilateral negotiations, particularly within the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the European Union has adopted a pragmatic approach. That is why the EU continues to promote international trade as a driver of growth and employment by also negotiating regional/bilateral trade agreements.

This approach has seen its first results with the signing and entry into force of various Trade Agreements, such as the one with the Republic of Korea which has already entered into force. In 2016, the EU also signed a FTA with Canada (CETA) which however still needs to be ratified by the individual member states. With a view to the important complementarity between the different levels of trade negotiation, Belgium is attentively following the development of the European Union's bilateral negotiations with several partners. The signing of a Free Trade Agreement with Vietnam has once more served as a reminder of the European Union's capacity to open up a promising market.

Also, within the framework of the negotiations conducted by the European Commission with the United States and Japan for example, Belgium has always actively promoted its economic interests and commanded a high degree of ambition, transparency, respect for our standards and values and the promotion of sustainable development. The TTIP-negotiations with the United States are currently in a standstill, awaiting further contacts with the new US administration.

It must be stressed that the development dimension is also very important and is duly taken into account in this bilateral approach, because the European Union typically adopts an asymmetrical approach (the Union offers more than it demands from those countries) in its negotiations for trade deals with the least developed or developing countries.

In addition to the negotiations on the multilateral and bilateral level, the European Union also participates in various plurilateral negotiations. In this context, we refer to the negotiations concerning trade in services (TISA) and the liberalisation of environmental goods (EGA: Environmental Goods Agreement). With regards to the EGA, no agreement could be concluded within the framework of the WTO in December 2016, but seeing the positive added value of this agreement in the fight against climate change, Belgium hopes to yet finalise this agreement in 2017.

However, negotiations alone are not enough. The rules must also be strictly abided by. That is why the European Union has the necessary trade defence instruments.

Promoting sustainable development in trade policy is a key principle for Belgium. We constantly insist on the inclusion of this aspect during trade negotiations. Belgium also calls for greater involvement of civil society in the monitoring mechanisms for the implementation of the commitments.

The objective is not only to ensure that trade does not damage sustainable development, but also that trade has a positive impact on employment and the environment. The provisions in our trade agreements are increasingly ambitious and based on an incentive-based approach. The building blocks concerning sustainable development can be summarised as follows:

  • Promoting the ratification and implementation of international instruments, particularly key ILO Conventions and major Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs);
  • Maintaining the right to regulate;
  • Setting up specific compliance bodies in Trade Agreements. A committee where the implementation of the commitments concerning sustainable development are discussed.. This committee is directly in contact with the civil society (e.g. domestic advisory groups set up by the EU/Korea Agreement). If a dispute arises, the principles of dialogue and transparency are key and furthermore there is also the possibility to set up an independent panel which monitors compliance of the commitments.

Another key principle is not to reduce the level of protection with the aim of attracting investment.

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