Frames and Issue Linkage: EU Trade Policy in the Geoeconomic Turn


by Andrea Christou (University of Edinburgh) and Chad Damro (University of Edinburgh)

Changes underway in the global political economy, including Sino-American tensions and the Covid-19 pandemic, are increasingly identified as creating new challenges and raising difficult questions about the role of prominent traders like the European Union (EU). While trade policy has long been connected to the regulatory Single European Market – in so far as regulations act as non-tariff barriers to trade – the policy is now being articulated and employed to achieve other non-trade goals and even becoming a geopolitical tool. Geoeconomic pressures like the Russian invasion of Ukraine inform EU justifications for using all tools and instruments to achieve external policy goals. From this view, non-trade issues and objectives, especially security ones, are increasingly incorporated into the EU’s trade agenda as a way to protect and promote Europe’s interests and values as well as the Single Market in a world characterised by the ‘geoeconomic turn,’ which is the focus of a Special Issue in JCMS.

Who is geopoliticising trade?

Against this background, our article argues that while the EU may be seen as responding to this turn by increasingly geopoliticising trade, the European Union’s Directorate-General (DG) for Trade may be reluctant to embrace such changes in favour of pursuing trade-specific objectives, including liberalisation, economic growth, and welfare maximization. Given the exclusive legal competence of trade policy, the view of DG Trade is particularly important because of its role in determining the ways and extent to which this policy can potentially be used as a tool of geopolitics.

We identify a subtle, but important, distinction missing from the views that the EU has geopoliticised trade: while the EU may seem to be linking trade with other policy areas, and specifically security policy, DG Trade seems to be reluctant to pursue linkages between trade and other external action policies.

Drawing on the framing literature in public policy studies, we argue that DG Trade’s ‘market liberal’ objectives have been used to justify the pursuit of trade policy and thus make up the dominant policy frame for the EU external trade agenda, which has been resistant to change. Yet, increasing linkages between trade and non-trade objectives present a ‘linkage’ counter-frame. This counter-frame challenges DG Trade’s dominant frame by presenting alternative justifications for pursuing trade policy. Changes among these frames can be accounted for by different factors, such as external pressures. These pressures may even encourage a reframing of trade policy – characterised by the gradual pursuit of security policy objectives – within the counter-frame.

Responding to geopoliticising pressures?

We examine the public discourse of both the EU and DG Trade in four EU trade strategies with two DG Trade strategic plans and ten annual management plans, to explore the relationship between DG Trade’s dominant market liberal frame for trade policy and the external pressures to geopoliticise trade policy (see Table 1). To address the role of external pressures in these frames, our analysis is guided by the framework proposed in the Special Issue. In particular, we explore how issue linkages connect the different frames and how reframing may reflect shifts in the shades of geopoliticisation.

Do market liberal objectives remain unchallenged?

In the DG Trade documents, we see a continued justification of trade policy in market liberal terms whereby mostly trade-specific objectives are pursued. Yet, we observe that the more recent documents provide some evidence of the emergence of issue linkages (i.e., the counter-frame) in DG Trade discourse, which reflects an awareness of how trade policy can be used to contribute to non-trade goals, including the protection of human rights and the promotion of sustainable development. Some of the language used, such as ‘geo-strategic rivalries,’ even reflects the reframed counter-frame found in EU discourse that links trade policy with the external security environment.

The EU documents go beyond the narrow DG Trade discourse, referring to how trade policy can support the EU’s values and goals and respond to external challenges by using its economic weight. Furthermore, since 2015, EU discourse reflects the reframed counter-frame by recognising trade policy as a ‘powerful tool,’ bringing together trade and foreign policy objectives ‘so that they mutually reinforce each other.’ The Trade Policy Review (2021), designed while ‘taking into account recent political, economic, technological, environmental and social shifts,’ reflects ‘geoeconomics’ at its core by pursuing ‘open strategic autonomy.’ Nevertheless, while this strategy may seem a significant shift in EU trade policy and even reflect deep geopoliticisation, the market liberal frame has not yet vanished as a justification.

Deep or reluctant geopoliticisation?

Across the two sets of actors, there are increasing references to global geopoliticising pressures, including digital and green transitions and the rise of China, when justifying the pursuit of trade policy. However, while the EU responds to these pressures by promoting the creation of linkages between different policy areas, including between trade policy and security objectives, DG Trade discourse still primarily reflects the dominant market liberal frame where trade is understood in neoliberal terms, and ‘geostrategic considerations’ have yet to ‘become key drivers of political decisions and policy choices.’ In this regard, DG Trade’s framing of trade policy reflects reluctant geopoliticisation where some of the means have been adapted, such as using trade defence instruments which link trade to other policy areas, yet the goals remain the same.

While we may be able to speak of a deep geopoliticisation of EU trade policy, we may only be able to speak of a reluctant geopoliticisation of DG Trade. Future research on the geopoliticisation of trade policy is, therefore, needed to examine ongoing institutional developments and changes regarding the reframed counter-frame and DG Trade. Moreover, the international context needs constant monitoring as it will likely continue as a key factor in policy framing stories and, perhaps, could one day contribute to a deep geopoliticisation of DG Trade itself.

Andrea Christou is a PhD Politics student at the University of Edinburgh. She holds a Master of Philosophy in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge, and a Bachelor of Arts in History with a Minor in Political Science from the University of South Florida.


Chad Damro is Professor of European Politics in Politics & IR at the University of Edinburgh. He also serves as Co-Director of the Edinburgh Europa Institute and Dean International – Europe.