EU-Asia Free Trade Agreements as tools for social norm/legislation transfer


Article 21 of the Treaty of Lisbon mandates the European Union (EU) to foster its values (democracy, the rule of law, social rights, gender equality, etc.) in its external relations. The core concern of the EU’s multi-faceted relations with Asia is economic relations with rising markets. EU relations with the region have focused on the facilitation of trade and investment through the negotiation of free trade agreements (FTAs) with a number of Asian partners. EU FTAs are accompanied by a Political Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which links core EU values to trade through the ‘standard clause’, whereby under certain circumstances, human rights’ abuses can trigger a suspension of trade preferences. Using a qualitative case study methodology, and drawing on policy documents and interviews, this paper addresses the question of whether, and how, the EU can balance its internal legal obligations with its economic interests and its partners’ demands. The article provides a legal background of the EU’s obligations in terms of international value promotion. It then reviews EU trade policy strategies and reveals an absence of a concerted approach to the inclusion of values. The article investigates the sources of resistance to EU attempts at linking its trade policy with broader values including social rights with Asian partners. The analysis reveals that Asian resistance is centred on the legalistic approach of the EU rather than the values and suggests that a more effective norm export might be achieved through other means. The article concludes that the EU’s failure to push forward social issues in FTAs ultimately casts serious doubts about the EU’s international ‘actorness’ in the area of social rights.

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  1. 1.

    The member states of the European Union are members of the ILO and signatory parties to most of the ILO conventions.

  2. 2.

    These differences in approach have stymied various attempts to include labour standards at the WTO level. Instead, at the 1996 WTO Singapore Ministerial meeting, it was agreed that the ILO, and not the WTO, was the appropriate forum for discussions of labour standards. Unlike the WTO, the ILO lacks an enforceable dispute settlement mechanism.

  3. 3.

    The European Parliament has also stressed that in the interest of consistency and coherence the EU-Canada Framework Agreement and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) must also include the linkage, despite Canada’s aggressive opposition to this. At the time of writing, CETA’s conclusion has been announced but the documents have yet to be made public.

  4. 4.

    It is broadly interpreted that the clause will only be invoked in a case of a strong deterioration of the status quo at the time of the agreement. Singapore, for instance, still has the death penalty in the stature books, even though no execution has taken place since 2009.

  5. 5.

    As no cases have been brought forward yet, we cannot assess the level of commitment of the parties and how significant the issue of expert advice and peer pressure will be in enacting behavioural and policy change.

  6. 6.

    EU negotiators admit that they, and their counterparts, know from the outset of negotiations that the EU will have to ‘pay’ for the inclusion of social clauses and for the values ‘pasarelle clause’ by granting partners greater access to the EU’s agricultural market or accepting reduced EU market access to the partner and making concessions in other areas (various Interviews, Brussels, October 2013).


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Correspondence to Annick Masselot.

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Garcia, M., Masselot, A. EU-Asia Free Trade Agreements as tools for social norm/legislation transfer. Asia Eur J 13, 241–252 (2015).

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  • European Union
  • Fair Trade
  • World Trade Organisation
  • International Labour Organisation
  • Free Trade Agreement