Photo: EUTIP

SOMO closely collaborates with academic institutions and universities in order to develop joint projects and funding proposals. A prime example of such collaboration is SOMO’s participation in the EU Trade and Investment Policy (EUTIP) Innovative Training Network, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement.

As a partner organisation, SOMO has had the pleasure to host Aakriti Bhardwaj, PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham, for a two-month research stay. We have asked Aakriti to highlight her work and reflect on her experiences during her secondment at SOMO.Photo: Aakriti Bhardwaj

What is your research about?

My scholarship engages the European Union’s trade and investment policy on trade and sustainable development issues related to labour rights and environmental protection. The Comprehensive Trade and Economic Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada and the EU-Mexico Free Trade Agreement updating the Global Agreement between the EU and Mexico are the focus of my research.

These EU agreements are considered “new generation” FTAs because they go beyond tariff cuts and trade in goods, covering areas such as trade in services, investment liberalisation, public procurement, and regulatory cooperation. Labour and Environment are covered separately under chapters on Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD). I have a keen interest in unpacking the governance related aspects of the labour and environmental standards and analysing the role of state and non-state actors (such as non-governmental organisations and businesses) in this respect.

Why is it important to look at the setting of labour and environmental standards in EU FTAs?

The EU is a prominent actor in the sphere of international trade seeking to pursue an ambitious trade policy with partner countries. All “new generation” EU FTAs concluded since 2010 contain provisions on labour rights and environmental protection under chapters on trade and sustainable development (TSD). The EU has emphasised that these chapters contain commitments to respect multilateral labour and environmental agreements and ensure that these standards are not lowered in order to advance economic objectives. To this end, the challenge before the EU is to reconcile trade and sustainable development objectives.

The 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development underscores the indivisibility of the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental. Furthermore, Sustainable Development Goal 8 ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’ directs governments to ensure sustained and inclusive economic growth. Thus, an analysis of how the EU works with its trade partners to prioritise sustainable development in its economic relations is crucial.

How can EU FTAs be channelled to strengthen labour relations, environmental protection and sustainable development, and what are the key challenges in this respect?

Looking at the multilateral dimension first, it is the potential impact of economic growth and poverty alleviation that makes trade a powerful tool for sustainable development, but the experience so far has demonstrated that social and environmental objectives are often subordinated to economic objectives. The reconciliation of trade and sustainable development has been one of the most pressing challenges for the WTO. In the light of its key principle of non-discrimination and its express recognition of the ILO as the appropriate organisation for dealing with labour rights, the WTO has found it difficult to promote the trade and sustainable development linkage.

Coming to the prominence of EU trade policy in this respect, EU FTAs present an opportunity to combine trade and non-trade (social as well as environmental) objectives towards sustainable development. The TSD chapters also institutionalise civil society mechanisms and dialogue in trade policy making. The bundling of these elements together may be particularly helpful in driving action on climate change which is a societal and environmental urgency. The primary challenge is to generate institutional and normative responses to initiate transition into sustainable trade.

What role is there for civil society organisations (CSOs) to play and what should be improved?

The European Commission does provide information on the EU’s progress on the negotiations with respective trade partners from time to time. CSOs are meant to play a role in the phase prior to, during and after completion of the negotiations on trade agreements. Central to this role is the aim to ensure that trade policy making remains democratic and transparent. Representation of the stakeholders’ opinion is one aspect of the responsibility taken up by CSOs whereas, seeking accountability is also essential to ensure an effective trade policy.

There are avenues for strengthening civil society mechanisms at Member State as well as EU-level by prioritising action on certain labour and environmental issues. Principles of good governance provide a framework for the responsible conduct of public affairs and management of public resources. However, EU trade policy would gain from utilising the expertise of CSOs on country-specific issues for more nuanced solutions on sustainable development.

How do you look back at your time with SOMO and what do you value the most?

I spent two months at SOMO and got a chance to interact with the members of the Economic Justice team who were incredibly supportive of my research. I learnt about other projects that SOMO engages in from discussions with project leads during lunch and coffee breaks.

With respect to my research, the experience of attending civil society dialogues organised by the European Commission in Brussels stands out the most for me because I gained an insight into the consultation and follow-up processes that CSOs participate in. I am certain that I will be able to utilise my experience at SOMO for advancing my research.


Aakriti Bhardwaj is a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher (ESR) and PhD Candidate at the School of Law, University of Nottingham. She hold a Master of Laws in International Trade Law (Contracts and Dispute Resolution) conferred jointly by the International Training Centre of the ILO and the University of Turin, Italy. She assumed her present role as part of the EU Trade and Investment Policy International Training Network (EUTIP-ITN) in October 2017.

Photo: Aakriti Bhardwaj

About the network:

The network comprises of 15 Marie Curie ESRs and PhD research projects hosted by academic institutions across EU Member States. The aim of the network is to foster interdisciplinary research covering the legal, political and economic foundations of the evolving international trade policy of the EU with the objective of creating a knowledge base and research capacity on the EU’s FTA with third countries. The network provides and opportunity for the ESRs to participate in an intersectoral programme of secondments involving designated Partner Organisations (PO) to support and enhance the research of each ESR. As such, SOMO hosted Aakriti for a period of two months from mid- April 2019 to mid-June 2019.