The bloc currently has 41 trade agreements in place with 72 countries.
It is not a word normally associated with free trade agreements, but ‘fatigue’ is currently setting in within the EU.
After years of unsuccessful negotiations with various countries across the world, some member states are starting to have second thoughts about how much they really want to continue negotiating deals with countries that many voters are beginning to question the benefits of.
“I think ‘fatigue’ is a pretty good word for that,” Ville Skinnari, Finland’s foreign trade minister told Euronews on Thursday.
And he is not wrong. Some of the deals have been in discussion for over ten years, including the EU-India Free Trade Agreement, which was only recently restarted after several failed attempts over the last decade.
EU trade ministers were in Brussels on Thursday to discuss stalled talks on these deals, but with many member states now doubting their added value, the time to get them over the line has never been more urgent.
According to Olivier Becht, the French Minister for Foreign Trade, the slowdown is not to do with fatigue, but rather the need to defend European interests.
“The agreements must be able to move forward, without also jeopardising our own sectors. I am thinking in particular of the agricultural sectors. We must be totally vigilant on this point,” Becht said upon arrival in Brussels.
“From this point of view, it’s obviously the time that goes into the negotiations to reach compromises that are acceptable, of course, to the member states but also to public opinion.”
For the EU, these trade agreements are a signal to its international partners to show its support for multilateralism. But Niclas Poitiers, a researcher at the Bruegel Institute, says that many of the benefits previously coming from such wide-ranging deals, may not materialise with any new ones.
“Some of this is the result of the success of globalisation in two ways,” Poitiers told Euronews.
“The first way is that we already lowered many tariffs to a very low-level historically, meaning that the benefits from these trade agreements in terms of opening of market are not as big as they used to be and this means that the benefits of other trade agreements are not as big as they used to be, meaning also that the incentives to sign them are not as big as they used to be.
“The second reason is basically that we’ve seen a lot of displacement in industries in the EU basically because of globalisation and also technology that meant that we have had a rise of inequality within the EU and this has led to a backlash by many people concerned about this inequality against globalisation and then against trade agreements,” he added.
The EU has for many years advocated the conclusion of such agreements. However, given the current international geopolitical situation and the difficulties encountered in supply chains due to the COVID-19 pandemic, member states seem now to want to reflect on their previous approach to free trade.