As COVID-19 gripped the globe in March 2020, politicians suddenly started discussing the EU’s trade policies in a way that would have been deemed lunacy just a few months earlier. The French Finance Minister made the case for ‘European industrial independence’ and ‘legitimate protection’, and his Dutch colleagues admitted that ‘it is time to take a step back’ and ‘rethink our trade deals’. ‘Autonomy’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘self-sufficiency’, and ‘protection’ were the talk of the town, and politicians who had ended 2019 wanting to open markets found themselves promoting the ‘reshoring’ of production to safeguard ‘vulnerable’ supply chains. At least on a rhetorical level, the change that COVID provoked in EU Trade Policy was sudden and profound.
‘Open strategic autonomy’
Crucially, many of the discourses that sprung up at the start of the COVID crisis were a far cry from the (neo)liberal paradigm that usually dominates and informs EU’s commercial policy. Faced with a substantial dislocation of the status quo, the European Commission initially denounced this novel rhetoric as old-fashioned protectionism. But as the pandemic disturbed trade flows in an unprecedented fashion, and with the debate on vulnerabilities of globalization waging ever more intensively, the Commission changed tack, and suddenly recognized the need for a ‘strategic’ and ‘open’ form of ‘autonomy’. The vague, borderline paradoxical concept of ‘open strategic autonomy’ did not resolve the ongoing discussions, however. In what sense does Europe need to be autonomous? What is the strategy that informs this autonomy? How do we balance the seeming opposites of autonomy and openness?
Various interpretations of what open strategic autonomy meant; burst forward and competed in what can be conceptualized as a ‘hegemonic struggle’ among policymakers. Eventually, a lukewarm alliance saw the neoliberal and the geopolitical interpretation end up as provisional winners. The neoliberal approach to strategic autonomy via diversification of supply chains was combined with the geopolitical desire to ensure that trade dependence does not harm the pursuit of foreign policy goals. This interpretation heavily permeated the European Commission’s Trade Policy Review, released in February 2021.
Post-structuralist discourse theory
Crucially, the arc and outcome of this story were not set in stone. The EU’s institutional outlook, its ideological and party-political balance of power, the preferences of and relations between its member states, and its policy-making culture certainly made particular responses to the COVID crisis more likely to materialize than others. But which path EU policymakers were going to follow and what effects their choices would have, were ultimately open-ended questions in the Spring of 2020. Not even the mightiest power brokers in the Parliament, the Commission, or the Council could escape this inevitable uncertainty at that point in time.
It is often tricky for social scientists to do justice to the fundamentally undecided and open-ended nature of political questions. A scientific explanation after all makes the explained events lose their eventuality and appear to us as logical and self-evident. But telling political (hi)stories in such a teleological fashion omits a fundamental characteristic of the political enterprise. What renders a decision ‘political’ in nature is precisely the absence of predetermination. Unlike gravity, political power is unpredictable and fickle.
Poststructuralist Discourse Theory (PDT) furnishes an account of political events that appreciates their contingency and their openness. According to Poststructuralist Discourse Theory (PDT), politics is essentially the act of social construction in a context defined by contingency, where the hegemony of one discourse over its alternatives brings one out of many possible social worlds into being. PDT narrates how old norms lose or maintain their grip; how established structures are defended or challenged; how new ideas manifest themselves – and it combines these logics to develop an interpretation of events that explains how things came to be while simultaneously underlining how they could have been different. PDT maintains that social forms do not manifest themselves naturally or spontaneously, but sees their existence as dependent on their capacity to win and maintain hegemony. As such, any account of how political decisions came to be, must explain how they managed to become more legitimate, normal, appropriate, or persuasive than a myriad of (unspoken) alternatives.
This theoretical infrastructure facilitates analyses that offer a clear account of how power is omnipresent in politics and of how power plays out in and affects the course of political events. Power is more than merely an accumulation of political, institutional, social, economic, or cultural capital – it also operates on a less conscious, less intentional level: there is power in the way we talk, think, know. By capturing power’s discursive patterns, PDT can explain political events as the emergent outcome of open-ended hegemonic struggles, free from predetermination.
Competing discourses in EU trade policy
As such, regardless of whether they were aware of it, the politicians who talked about reshoring and thought about a major overhaul of the EU’s trade deals at the start of the COVID crisis were opening up a logic that could have completely reimagined what EU trade policies look like. By focusing the debate on the idea of ‘open’ but nevertheless ‘strategic’ forms of ‘autonomy’, the Commission partially contained these logics, and prevented them from branching all too far beyond the extant paradigm. But in doing so, it created a fertile ideological ground for the cross-pollination between liberal ideas about freeing markets on the one hand and geopolitical ideas about Europe’s global clout on the other hand. As evidenced in the 2021 Trade Policy Review, this common ground allowed the dominant neoliberal hegemony to endure – the EU’s trade policy post-COVID remains largely in line with its pre-COVID policies – albeit now infused with a distinct geopolitical twist.
The other major competitor for discursive hegemony over EU trade policy – the trade justice paradigm, which emerged in the wake of the movements against a new WTO round, EPAs, TTIP, and CETA – seems to have lost this struggle. Although ‘resilience’ and ‘autonomy’ are in theory perfectly compatible with an emancipatory approach to trade policy, it took quite a long time for progressive movements to involve the COVID crisis in ongoing attempts to politicize and reorient EU trade policy. And even as they did so, they barely referenced to ‘resilience’ and ‘strategic autonomy’, leaving the opportunity to give meaning to these terms largely up to neoliberal and geopolitical perspectives.
The wider relevance of post-structuralist discourse theory
A discourse-theoretical vantage point aims to disentangle the hegemonic dynamic effects that are playing out in episodes like these. It goes without saying that this makes PDT radically different from more conventional approaches in political-economic research. It refrains from constructing causal mechanisms and as such lacks access to their explanatory power. But it has tremendous potential to inform a non-essentialist and non-teleological interpretation of political events, that highlights the role that discourse and hegemony play in the construction of our social world. Such a perspective can create a unique account of why, in moments of crisis and dislocation, political events transpire the way they do – something we have tried to illustrate in our analysis of EU trade politics under COVID in JCMS.
Thomas Jacobs is an assistant professor in communication science at Université Saint-Louis – Brussels. His main research interests include discourse analysis, hegemony, and political communication.
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.
Ferdi De Ville is associate professor in European political economy at Ghent University. His main research interest is the political economy of the European Union’s external trade policies.
Jan Orbie is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Centre for EU Studies at Ghent University in Belgium. He researches the EU’s external relations, in particular trade and development policies