EU trade policy and the “meta-participation” challenge

by Diāna Potjomkina

This contribution is part of a blog series seeking to explore how postdevelopment approaches can inform, infuse and potentially transform the study of EU (development) policies and relationships with the Global South.

The ways in which citizen participation is currently organized for “development” purposes have been questioned by critical observers including the post-development community but also by  representatives of the mainstream development world, such as some of the World Bank’s lead economists. Criticism is – justifiably – directed at top-down approaches of the donors, ignoring local power relations, and at participatory fora which lack real impact. In too many cases, the search of “fast policy” and easy solutions has led to uncritical adoption of one-size-fits-all solutions which can easily fail in foreign contexts, even if they were genuinely successful in their place of origin.

This blog introduces the concept of “meta-participation” as a way to radically expand the current, very restricted, mechanisms. More specifically, it focuses on the example of the participation formats established in the framework of the European Union’s “new generation” free trade agreements, which aim to discuss the “trade and sustainable development” provisions. These provisions are very limited, despite the widely recognized negative ramifications of free trade. Civil society representatives proactively demand both the reorganization of the existing participation mechanisms and a change in the rationale behind the “trade and sustainable development” chapters. Nevertheless, their meta-participatory initiatives have so far received very limited response by the EU. Therefore, this blog argues that, as long as such agreements are concluded, a different approach to involving societies is required – allowing for incorporating much broader criticism and change.

The prefix “meta” means “outside the normal limits of something”. Thus, meta-participation is not aimed at discussing specific substantive issues in a given framework, but rather at participation itself: defining, improving and systematizing the modalities of participation in order to match them to the needs and demands of the participants.  Moreover, we can also use the term “meta-participation” to denote discussion of broader substantive aspects in a “meta” way, namely, through a critical analysis of the established rationales and norms.

The current contestation going on in trade governance and beyond illustrates the need for meta-participation. For example, protesters against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) opposed not only the negative impacts of both deals on labour rights, environment and consumer protection, but also the phenomenon of “trading away democracy” through allowing private investors to sue the states and thus eroding citizens’ control over their governments. In other words, they were not satisfied with the extremely limited formal channels for dialogue, which also did not allow for genuine contestation of the substance of the agreements and the very rationale of trade.

This brings us to our empirical example, the DAGs – institutionalized consultative bodies comprised by representatives of trade unions, business associations and environmental, sometimes also other, non-governmental organizations. Ten years ago, with the conclusion of the EU-South-Korea free trade agreement, they were introduced as a participatory way to monitor the impact of trade and submit observations and recommendations to the Parties. Both the EU and the partner countries are supposed to create their own DAGs or, in a few cases, designate existing mechanisms to fit this purpose.

The problem, however, is that the EU’s approach to participation within the trade agreements does not encourage meta-participation by civil society. First, procedurally, the DAGs are the only participatory mechanisms foreseen in the EU’s trade agreements, and are only created at the implementation stage, when the text has been agreed upon. Thus, their form is pre-defined without consulting civil society, especially in the partner countries. Their shape is also fixed, without meaningful possibilities for assessment and improvement. A discussion on the future of the TSD chapters in 2017 as well as the follow-up in 2018 took the form of “non-papers” by the “Commission services”. There is no dedicated space for regular discussions on how the DAGs should be organized and for civil society feedback. There is also no discussion on how to systematize mechanisms for dialogue on sustainable development, despite having an overlap among multiple thematically related fora in some cases.

Second, content-wise, the DAGs can only discuss one specific chapter – Trade and Sustainable Development, which includes limited labour and environmental provisions. In other words, civil society is expected to focus on an artificially limited aspect of the bilateral trade agenda, while other chapters of the agreement also have far-reaching implications. Moreover, discussions on sustainable development are always expected to take into account the opinions of the business sector, which forms a part of the DAGs, and to stay within the overall limits of the (very liberal) trade agreements. Hence, it hinders civil society in contesting the overall rationale behind the agreements and proposing measures that might be detrimental to the short-term economic interests.

Many of the DAGs’ members are not content with the status quo and attempt to move from restricted participation to meta-participation, by reorganizing and expanding the debate. Procedurally, the setup of the DAGs is often criticized. Much time in DAG meetings is dedicated not to discussing the narrow impact of trade on labour rights and environmental norms, but rather the modalities of how exactly it should be discussed in the first place, which intertwines with broader substantive concerns of civil society. This resistance is not only rhetorical but also manifests in specific actions, for instance, by ignoring meetings or to the contrary, pushing for specific working plans and building informal coalitions.

Substantively, DAG representatives often speak in favour of prioritizing sustainability considerations over trade and strictly sanctioning violations of environmental protection and labour rights. By doing so, they want to challenge the overall rationale behind the EU’s free trade agreements and specifically Trade and Sustainable Development chapters – that sustainable development can be achieved without substantially compromising on trade liberalization, and that civil society can and should promote sustainability on its own, without governmental support or even in opposition to governmental policies. Indeed, some civil society representatives are generally against free trade. Other DAG members, many of them from business, also seek to change participation mechanisms, making them less structured, because they would like to change the underlying rationale to focus more on free trade – this, too, is meta-participation.

Peru is an interesting example in this regard. There, the government chose existing mechanisms in place of a dedicated DAG without actually ensuring that they fulfil this new function, and did not concern itself with environmental and labour violations. Therefore, in 2017, Peruvian civil society circumvented the established mechanisms of participation and submitted to the European Commission a formal complaint concerning the violations. It criticized the formally designated participation formats for being overly restricted and dependent on the government, demanding more open discussions. Additionally, it established an informal, but very active, “shadow DAG”, and pushes for its official recognition by the government. Despite not yet being officially recognized, and the fact that business associations could not be convinced to participate, the DAG proceeds without them and continues to monitor the impact of the agreement and advocate for broader participation and sustainability-oriented reforms.

Meta-participation, in short, is very much in demand. In the case of the EU’s “new generation” free trade agreements, many civil society representatives in the EU’s partner countries do not feel that “Trade and Sustainable Development” chapters, with their limited provisions, indeed promote sustainable development and not only trade. As the example of the Peruvian shadow DAG shows, if civil society is not satisfied with the existing opportunities, it will often advocate changes within the existing mechanisms or look for ways to circumvent them. So far, the EU has not been particularly responsive to the Peruvian civil society initiative or other meta-participatory pleas. Unfortunately, in doing so, it recreates the 20th century “developmentalist” thinking privileging Western dominance.

Diāna Potjomkina is a PhD Fellow affiliated to Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Ghent University and the United Nations University – CRIS, where she works on the GREMLIN project on understanding the impact of multistakeholderism on global and regional governance (GREMLIN: Global and REgional MuLtistakeholder INstitutions). Her research interests include multistakeholderism, the European Union’s external trade policy, and other external policies of the EU.

The aim of this blog series is to stimulate thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and alternative role(s) the EU could/should play, inspired by insights from postdevelopment thinkers. The series results from various exchanges and discussions between the contributors since early 2019.