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Neo-liberalism by default? The European Union’s trade and development policy in an era of crisis

Abstract

This article investigates whether or not the dominance of neo-liberalism in the European Union’s (EU’s) trade and development politics has been moderated by the global economic crisis and the changing global economic order. It combines the methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) with critical forms of international political economy. It demonstrates how neo-liberalism has infused the EU’s approach, and the concept of interdiscursivity is used to analyse how neo-liberalism is articulated with other discourses, and how this has evolved. Key policy discourses and nodal discourses are traced in two major EU texts on trade and development. The one from 2002 articulates a strongly neo-liberal vision of globalisation, free market reform and inter-regional integration. In the 2012 document, the sense of a neo-liberal trajectory is downplayed and a more realist geoeconomic discourse emerges. A review of the EU’s other texts and its behaviour reveals a tougher approach, which creates a new subset of worthy developing countries and treats the others as emerging rivals. In conclusion, the core tenets of neo-liberalism are still present, however, they are embedded in a new policy configuration and geoeconomic context.

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Notes

  1. The Commission’s role in managing aid is now shared with the European External Action Service — created by the Lisbon Treaty — but the Commission takes the lead.

  2. The other academic studies cited here also focus on the Commission as the agenda setter in trade policy (e.g., De Ville and Orbie 2011; Siles-Brügge 2011; Young and Peterson 2013).

  3. Neo-classical economic theory is distinguished from broader neo-liberalism as it involves a specific methodology (formal modelling).

  4. The human development/moral economy discourse can also be deemed to include environmentalist and sustainability principles.

  5. Nominalisation is where a process is described as a noun, which has the effect of ignoring the agent and timing (Fairclough 1989: 124–25).

  6. This document (released on 26 March) outlined the priorities that should apply across all of the EU’s different development relationships.

  7. There is no mention of its own particularities, its illiberal agricultural policies for example.

  8. The document cited was a general overview, and reiteration of, the need for EPAs.

  9. This document outlined a new, more flexible global trade strategy, to increase the EU’s access to the emerging markets.

  10. The EU’s line also differs from an independent neo-liberal such as Bhagwati (2004: 182–85) in its support for the Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, which he has criticised as overly constraining and biased towards large corporations. This could be considered a debate within neo-liberalism between corporate friendly neo-liberalism and a more freedom-orientated neo-liberalism.

  11. The watershed moment, in terms of when the period of ‘crisis’ begins, is taken to be the financial crisis of 2008. As noted, the EU’s trade agenda had run into difficulties (if not a crisis) while the WTO was already in a type of crisis, because of the new power balance, but the financial/Eurozone crisis really intensified the perception of a declining West. Although some of the drivers for the EU behaviour clearly precede 2008, this is a valid marker.

  12. Like the Global Europe document, this was produced by DG Trade and was not primarily concerned with development.

  13. This was an updating of the 2000 development policy communication with the same status and function.

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Acknowledgements

This first draft of this article was completed during a sabbatical spent as a visiting researcher at the Institute for International Integration Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, in 2012. The author would like to thank the IIIS staff, and Dr. Padraig Carmody in particular, for their support. As a part of his research, he interviewed a number of aid officials, civil society activists and government officials in Brussels, Dublin and Pretoria. The author would like to thank them for their helpfulness. Acknowledgements are also due to Shabnam Holliday for commenting on the text and to his other colleagues in the Politics and International Relations Group at the Plymouth School of Government.

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Holden, P. Neo-liberalism by default? The European Union’s trade and development policy in an era of crisis. J Int Relat Dev 20, 381–407 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/jird.2015.10

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Keywords

  • development
  • discourse
  • hegemony
  • neo-liberalism
  • realism
  • trade