giovedì, Maggio 30, 2024

Sustainable Development Goals and EU free trade agreements

Sustainable development is now a fundamental part of the EU trade policy; indeed, all EU Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) include a Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) Chapter. The rationale behind the TSD Chapter is that there is no way to ensure that trade is ecologically and socially sustainable.

This revolutionary change in EU trade policies has been a consequence of international instruments adopted on a large scale by the members of the international community, aimed to ensure sustainable development at economical, environmental and social level. In particular, the UN Agenda 2030 and the Paris agreement on climate change have pushed the European Commission to table a new proposal for the TSD Chapter.

In 2015, all the United Nations Member States adopted the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The aim is to achieve a better and more sustainable future by 2030, by addressing global challenges as poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. At the basis of this choice there is the idea that “ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve oceans and forests”.[1]

On the other hand, the Paris Agreement on climate change has been adopted on 12 December 2015 to combat climate change. (by keeping the global average temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level)[2]and to accelerate the actions needed for a sustainable low carbon future. Given the threat of climate change, the Paris Agreement wants to develop a sustainable future, together with the eradication of poverty, also by making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.[3]

These two international instruments have led to change in the direction taken by the European Union in its trade policy. Together with them, the growing skepticism among civil society in regards to the benefits from free trade (especially concerning the TTIP) is another important element that has influenced the choices of the European Commission.

Indeed, as far as open trade policies enhance economic ties between the trading partners, critics have been moved to the social and environmental aspects of the trade agreements. In recent years, debates about trade have intensified and many people argue over the regulatory protection and the potential impact on jobs of the FTAs. The debates over the Trade and Sustainable Development Chapter identify the need for EU trade policy to ensure that free trade does not harm human, social, and labor rights, together with the environment and the animals.

In order to deal with this issue, the European Commission has adopted in 2015 the Trade for All Communication to improve the current dialogue in enforcing labor and environment provisions in the FTAs, and to introduce a stronger dispute settlement mechanism. In the Trade for All Communication, it is read that: “EU trade policy is for all (…) It seeks to improve conditions for citizens, consumers, workers and the self-employed, small, medium and large enterprises, and the poorest in developing countries, and addresses the concerns of those who feel they are losing out from globalization. While trade policy must deliver growth, jobs and innovation, it must also be consistent with the principles of the European model. It must promote and defend European values”.[4]

Since July 2017, EU Member States, the European Parliament, and civil society organizations have submitted a variety of inputs to the European Commission regarding various enhancements and innovations on the approach to the implementation of the TSD Chapters of EU FTAs. As far as all participants in the debate expressed their wish to maintain the scope of TSD chapters in EU FTAs and to support the effective implementation of the global framework of social, labor, and environmental standards, they agreed that more effective means are needed.[5]Following the debate, in February 2018, the European Commission has tabled a new proposal, identifying 15 action plans to be taken to revamp the TSD Chapters. In the meanwhile, the Commission is regularly reviewing, together with the other EU institutions, the functioning and impact of the implementation of TSD Chapters and will continue to engage with civil society to analyze the effectiveness of the implementation of the TSD Chapters.

Currently, the consultations for the improvements of the TSD Chapter are still ongoing but the European Union is strongly focused on enhancing the relation between trade and protection for human and labor rights, as well as the protection of the environment. An example is provided by the very recent EU-Japan trade agreement –entered into force on the 1st of February 2019- containing a full chapter on trade and sustainable development, which protects the EU’s right to regulate and to set its own laws, regulation and levels of protection on labor and the environment.[6]Even though the negotiations for the EU-Mercosur Association Agreement are still ongoing, the text of the agreement includes a trade and sustainable development chapter, which covers issues as sustainable management and conservation of forests, wildlife trade and respect for labor rights.[7]

As we have seen, sustainability is now of one the key objectives of EU trade policy, and the Trade for All strategy commits the EU to a responsible trade and investment policy as an instrument to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals, contributing to boosting jobs, sustainable growth and investment in Europe and outside.[8]

[1]U.N., Sustainable development goals Knowledge Platform, available at:

[2]Article 2 (a) of the Paris Agreement on climate change, available at:

[3]Article 2 (c) of the Paris Agreement on climate change

[4]European Commission, “Trade for all”, Towards a more responsible trade and investment policy, available at:

[5]European Commission, “Feedback and way forward on improving the implementation and enforcement of Trade and Sustainable Development chapters in EU Free Trade Agreements”, available at:

[6]European Commission, “An introduction to the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement”, available at:

[7]European Commission, “EU-Mercosur association agreement”, available at:

[8]European Commission Communication COM(2016) 739 final of 22 November 2016, “Next steps for a sustainable European future – European action for sustainability”, available at:

Maria Sole Russo

Laureata in Diritto internazionale e dell'Unione Europea presso l'Università LUISS Guido Carli di Roma. Ha approfondito la conoscenza del diritto internazionale seguendo diversi corsi presso la Fordham University di New York, Peking University di Pechino, LMU di Monaco di Baviera, HSE di San Pietroburgo e Universidade da Coruna. Ha svolto tirocini e brevi esperienze di lavoro presso il Parlamento Europeo, la Commissione Europea, il Consiglio d'Europea e le Nazioni Unite.

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