The Curious Non-Stalemate of EU Trade Policy: Progression Amidst Contestation and Deadlock


By Niels Gheyle


For about 10 intense days in October 2016, the world was watching a 21st century political remake of the Gallic Wars, in which a small region resisted domination of the marching empire. The Asterix in this case was Paul Magnette then PM of Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. Through some complex Belgian constitutional settlement, the Belgian regions sometimes have to grant the federal government their fiat to sign international agreements negotiated by the EU. In this case, it’s the Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

CETA, and other trade agreements such as the one with the United States (TTIP), or EU-Mercosur, caused a lot of buzz in several European countries – the Walloon region included. This included media coverage, street protests, social media campaigns and parliamentary debates among other things. Never before did European trade agreements became so politicized with politicians put in the spotlights. Policymakers had good reasons to be responsive to the concerns. Combined with Wallonia’s veto position, the EU’s free trade agreement with Canada was seemingly blocked.

Yet after 10 days, CETA all of a sudden got signed. It took some pressure, and a deus-ex-machina that bears the technical term of ‘Joint Interpretative Instrument’ to persuade Magnette to lay down his arms. Other contemporary trade deals seem to have followed a similar path: intensely politicized, facing institutional deadlock, yet nevertheless crossing the finishing line. How can we explain this puzzling non-stalemate of the EU’s free trade agenda?


A politicized decision trap

In essence, what emerged in EU trade policy was a ‘politicized decision trap’ where two things come together. First, a joint decision trap. This 1980s concept introduced by Fritz Scharpf refers to an institutional arrangement which grants (de facto) veto power to a lower-level government. In an EU context this means that Member States are obliged to work together, yet have large difficulties in comprehensively pushing forward. Given that EU trade agreements are sometimes ‘mixed’ agreements (needing national parliamentary approval) or part of Association Agreements (needing unanimity in the Council), they are prone to this decision trap.

Secondly, intense politicization in (one or more) specific region(s). Such politicization is best understood as a visible expansion of the scope of conflict. Scholars started attributing this to the process of EU integration since the end of the 1990s, which picked up considerable speed in the ‘crisis era’ post-2010. In EU trade policy, similar conflict expansions have occurred around different negotiations of which the EU was part – either multi-, pluri-, or most significantly bilateral trade agreements.

Against this background of the politicization of trade agreements, that old concept of the ‘joint decision trap’ deserves renewed attention, as it provides the circumstances for a reactivation, and indeed deadlock. In a politicized process, EU topics are put in the spotlight, different actors and audiences are drawn in a debate, and two polarizing sets of opinions, interests or values are pitted against each other. National representatives are hence urged to be responsive and take additional considerations into account that are raised in the domestic context. In some cases, this leads to a de facto veto position that cannot easily be accommodated in the spotlights. In other words, a ‘politicized decision trap’.


Exits, circumvention, evasion, etc.

It looks quite dysfunctional, a system that seems geared for deadlock. But then again, all these deals were signed, concluded, even ratified – so how can this concept help us? Crucially, at the time, scholars argued that ways to escape deadlock were as characteristic for the EU as stalemate. Since then, a wide array of ‘exit mechanisms’ has been documented, from choosing the most favourable treaty base for new EU legislation, over bargaining processes, to long-term socialization of policy elites.

The theoretical added value of my recent paper ‘Evading vetoes: exiting the politicized decision trap in EU trade policy’ was to rehabilitate this literature on exits out of the deadlock, yet against the background of politicization. I make a distinction between three types of exits: anticipating, engaging, and defusing vetoes. The differences between them are based on the timing of politicization: either it might happen and produce deadlock (so we can anticipate it), it is already happening (but there is still a negotiation phase to deal with it), or it occurs after negotiations have officially concluded (and what do we do then?).

In reviewing the trade policy literature, I give several examples of how a field so riddled with (potential) politicization and deadlock, was still able to conclude (and initiate) all its endeavours (except for TTIP). In anticipating vetoes, for example, the European Commission started a practice of splitting agreements in several parts, in order to separate the most controversial elements that could then no longer affect or derail all other parts. Through engagement with opponents, and increased communication and (re)framing of trade deals, it has tried to diminish fears, ‘bust myths’, and ease opposition. Finally, when negotiations were already finished (as in the example of CETA above), a combination of pressure and legal add-ons paved the way for conclusion.


What does all of this tell us?

This paper has two broader implications. First, from the perspective of EU trade policy, it gives a comprehensive outlook of why EU trade policy has shown such resilience even though one would expect deadlock and blockage spurred by politicization. Moreover, it also adds to an explanation of

why different trade agreements are politicized to different extents: successfully employing exit mechanisms might (prematurely) dampen politicization.

Secondly, from a general EU integration perspective, this contributes to a broader question about what happens to the efficiency of a decision-making system that is built for finding consensus when it is faced with politicization. While the scope conditions under which these deadlocks form and can be evaded deserve further study, it nevertheless shows that politicization does not necessarily imply deadlock, but that a variety of circumventions is possible to cross the minefield.


The blog draws on the JCMS article Evading Vetoes: Exiting the Politicized Decision Trap in EU Trade Policy.




Niels Gheyle is a postdoctoral researcher at UCLouvain (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) working on the politicization of EU and global governance, with an emphasis on EU trade policy.

Twitter: @NGheyle