Donald Trump and Brexit dealt two heavy blows to the decades-long expansion of free trade. In continuing to aggressively pursue agreements, the EU has become its guardian. Eleanor Wragg reports.


For decades, the transatlantic relationship has been a central artery of the world economy. But the US’ adoption of an antagonistic approach to global trade under the Trump administration looks to have put the final nail in the coffin of the US-Europe dyad as leader of the liberal world order, and the EU is now going it alone.

As US President Trump makes good on his campaign promise to tear up trade pacts from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the EU has responded by ramping up its efforts to remove tariffs and further expand exports.

Among free trade agreements (FTAs) either recently signed or on the table include those with erstwhile TPP members Japan, New Zealand, Vietnam and Singapore, the US’ Nafta partners Mexico and Canada, as well as India. With 20 bilateral deals now under negotiation, the EU is cementing its position as the western world’s premier champion of free trade.

“Europe has always been an attractive economic space, but since last year, I see that our partners all over the world are knocking at our door in order to sign trade agreements with us,” said European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2017 State of the Union address.


Shrugging off Brexit

Shifting US trade policy is far from the only catalyst for the EU. “This is not completely unrelated to the Brexit issue. The EU is working to shore up its reputation and presence in the global economy, and counter the impression that it is falling apart. It is not falling apart on trade grounds,” says Rebecca Harding, an economist and the author of the recent book The Weaponization Of Trade.

Indeed, speaking to Politico last year, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström made certain to highlight what the UK has to lose as a result of leaving the EU: “The very day that the UK leaves the European Union, it also leaves all the trade agreements that we have with third countries.”

There have been hints of this, too, in comments made by European officials around the tabled free trade agreement with India. Negotiations have been deadlocked for five years while both sides thrash out sticking points from Indian import duties on cars and alcohol to the EU’s recognition of the Asian country as “data-secure” – a key agenda point for the massive Indian IT sector. Despite the arduous back-and-forth, there appears still to be the political will to get the deal done – if only because certain European economies see an opportunity to replace the UK as India’s European partner of choice.

“Together with our French partners, we can become India’s new strategic anchor on the European continent and in the European single market,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a speech at the University of Delhi in March.


Sign in haste, repent at leisure?

As well as the trade agreement with India, others, too, have languished for many years without being finalised, entangled in bureaucratic hurdles. This is partly due to the fact that not only does any deal need to be approved by all 28 member states, but their regional governments get a say, too.

No better was this red tape illustrated than in negotiations with Canada. Stalled for seven years as the two parties haggled, talks were very nearly torpedoed at the last minute by the Belgian region of Wallonia, home to just 3.5 million people, which objected to the pact’s investor-state dispute settlement provision.

To avoid this happening again, Juncker has proposed a fast-track ratification which would take
out the need for approval by multiple parliaments.

“The EU is trying to put everything through very, very quickly, which is uncharacteristic,” says Harding. “Why does Europe want to do these deals quickly? It is because they want to have the countervailing power against the US, and they want to be absolutely sure to make it known that they have an awful lot of trade power in their hands.”

The bloc has also demonstrated a willingness elsewhere to gloss over more minor niggles which would have traditionally been a barrier in the pursuit of getting ink to paper. “I think there are a lot of things in the EU-Japan deal which are not properly nailed down, particularly data transfer. It is almost a typical European fudge of ‘let us get the deal done and then we will talk about it afterwards’. I think that there is still quite a lot of negotiation to be done,” says Harding.


Trade as influence, or just a piece of paper?

As the EU strikes deal after deal, it is also strengthening its position as a key influencer of global standards. The bloc’s trade policy is used as a vehicle for the promotion of European principles and values, from democracy and human rights to environment and social rights. This is contributing to changing the way corporates look at trade.

“We see a growing need for sustainable supply chain management practices while companies look into strategic sourcing,” says Andrew Betts, regional head of global trade and receivables finance for Europe and global head of commodities at HSBC.

Interestingly, all of the recent free trade deals the EU has signed include its geographical indications – the system for protecting and promoting names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs. This means that in an increasing number of global markets, goods like sherry, feta cheese and champagne can only come from Spain, Greece and France, protecting European producers from competition.

Signing these deals is one thing, but utilising them is another. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the National Board of Trade Sweden asserted that European exporters were overpaying to the tune of nearly €72bn because they did not take advantage of reduced tariffs offered by FTAs.

“Many companies report that they have difficulties taking advantage of the preferential tariffs in the FTAs, which often has to do with the fact that the rules on proving a product’s origin – a requirement for reduced tariffs – are complex,” says the report’s co-author, UNCTAD economist Stefano Inama.

Indeed, for many exporters, FTAs are more academic than practical. “From a bank point of view, we welcome anything that furthers the free trade agenda,” says Michael Vrontamitis, head of Europe and Americas trade at Standard Chartered. “When you look at it from a corporate point of view, it is just one aspect of the overall decision whether to sell into or buy from a market. While it simplifies the customs, the tariff structures and the overall ability to trade, at the end of the day, you’ve still got to have a product or service that someone wants to buy and you’ve got to do it at a competitive price based on the underlying economy as well as infrastructure and ease of doing business.”

However, the EU’s recent drive to sign trade deals with Asean countries – where regional integration has already seen supply chains flourish across manufacturing sites – is resulting in movement by businesses.

“I was in Hong Kong recently talking to a European company which is reconfiguring its retail garment production and moving parts of its supply chain to new territories,” says HSBC’s Betts. “They will add greater volumes outbound from Vietnam directly as a result of the free trade agreement with Vietnam. They are looking at how they can reconfigure their sourcing and connect the supply chain between the EU and Vietnam. Therefore, we appreciate that this new FTA is having an immediate and real practical application in the global world of business. Companies will look into plans to adapt business practices, switch suppliers and renegotiate contracts to benefit from the FTA.”


New horizons in the land of the rising sun

Heralded as the EU’s “stand against protectionism” by European Council president Donald Tusk, the Japan-EU Free Trade Agreement, or JEFTA, covers 30% of global GDP and 37% of the world’s trade by value.

While exporting powerhouse Germany is a clear beneficiary – its exports to Japan are worth €19.9bn and support almost 200,000 jobs – smaller and peripheral European countries are also set to benefit. Tiny Malta, which counts Japan as its sixth biggest trading partner outside of the EU, has a trade surplus of €46mn with the Japan, and its government is excited about the liberalisation of goods and services trade with the Asian nation.

“Promising areas for direct investment are precision engineering, pharmaceuticals, edible products, machinery and mechanical appliances, plastic and plastic products, chemicals, aircraft parts, software developments, toys and games, and logistics,” said Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, speaking at the Japan-Malta Business Forum in July this year.

“In discussion with clients, we see positivity around Japan’s exports of motor vehicles and machinery, and for the EU around food industry and pharmaceutical players,” says HSBC’s Betts.

Japanese carmakers will benefit from the removal of the current 10% tariffs on the vehicles they export to the EU. While the consequent price reduction could pose a threat to European car manufacturers, some may stand to benefit: French firm Renault is currently in merger talks with Japan’s Nissan, while German company Volkswagen is partnering with Toyota on self-driving vehicles.

On the EU side, exports of processed food, including meat and dairy products, are expected to rise by up to €10bn once the deal takes full effect and tariffs are gradually dropped, the European Commission says. Meat products were the largest single EU food export to Japan in 2017, and the deal has enthused Spanish and Danish exporters, who hope to gain further market share with their cured meat, ham and bacon products. Meanwhile, Japanese dairy firms, currently protected by tariffs of up to 40% on cheese products, will likely face stiff competition once these are lowered.


Beyond trade

The deal also removes several non-trade barriers, a further boon for exporters. “On the practical front, for motor vehicles there will be the same set of standards between the EU and Japan for areas covering product safety and environmentally-friendly technology. We are expecting Japan to benefit strongly from that,” says Betts. “Secondly, there will be an alignment of international standards around medical devices and over time we expect a very significant improvement in the pharmaceutical industry that will become more visible when the agreement is fully in place.”

Standard Chartered’s Vrontamitis also points out that JEFTA will probably lead to more delegations going between Europe and Japan. “With political will to encourage that, and by having a strong relationship, you tend to trade with people that you know and that you trust and that allows for greater trade.”

The sentiment among European corporates towards JEFTA is broadly positive, with an HSBC survey of British and German businesses finding that one-third believe that there would be a positive impact within two years.

“There is basically a sense of optimism coming out both anecdotally and practically from the different discussions we have held with our clients,” says Betts. “What clients talked about with regard to JEFTA is that it is a multifaceted agreement. It covers different sectors, and it also touches upon services, which is fantastic. While we start to see the removal of trade barriers around duties and non-tariff barriers, we also see reference to the free flow of data, data privacy and others. We can already see that this is a real step forward in terms of how clients are actually looking at working with the free trade agreements and reviewing their core operating models.”


Setting sights on the world

Next on the cards for the EU is a trade agreement with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc that has Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as members (Venezuela is suspended). According to Argentina’s foreign minister Jorge Faurie, the finish line for negotiations could be as soon as September. Almost two decades in the making, the eventual pact would be four times larger than the agreement with Japan in terms of trade volumes, and would open up the huge emerging markets of Argentina and Brazil, adding to the EU’s ever-expanding web of free trade deals in what was once seen as America’s backyard.

“The EU at the moment is in a position where it wants to make sure that it has got a very strong line against bilateralism,” says Harding.

For trade finance banks, the EU’s drive to champion free trade means more opportunities to support clients. “Clients are looking at institutions that can offer solutions to cover both ends of their global supply chains, particularly as this relates to changes in free trade agreements,” says HSBC’s Betts. “We anticipate increasing our support to our clients around working capital needs, receivables financing, as well as supporting their supply chains. We are seeing a greater focus on transforming the culture of managing working capital and supply chain between both ends of free trade agreements.”


The EU’s trade deals at a glance

Vietnam: FTA in pre-signature phase, entry into force expected in 2019.

Winners and losers: Vietnam’s garments and footwear exports will gain better access to European markets, while scope for growth is seen in seafood and other agri-processing products. EU firms will also be allowed to bid for public contracts with Vietnamese authorities and state-owned enterprises.


India: Talks began in 2007, stalled since 2013.

Winners and losers: Research by Bertelsmann Foundation shows India would gain the most in business services (US$6.4bn) and textiles/apparel (US$6.6bn). Indian apparel shipments into the EU, the world’s top clothing import market, currently face duties of 6% to 12% while those from competitors Sri Lanka and Bangladesh face no duty at all. The German car sector and machines and equipment are likely to benefit the most, with their value added predicted to increase by up to €1.5bn and €1.4bn respectively, should the deal be finalised.


Singapore: Expected to come into force before the European Commission’s mandate ends in 2019.

Winners and losers: A study conducted after negotiations were concluded suggests the EU economy could benefit to the tune of €550mn over 10 years. Singapore will now offer better access to its market to EU companies than it does to firms from elsewhere in sectors including financial services, transport and information technology. Alongside the deal with Vietnam, this Singapore agreement will help pave the way for a future region-to-region trade and investment agreement.


New Zealand: Negotiations launched in June 2018.

Winners and losers: Overall trade between New Zealand and the EU could increase by 36%, according to the EU impact assessment. The EU’s machinery and appliances, motor vehicles, chemicals and food and drink exporters are most likely to gain from this deal, while New Zealand’s animal and vegetable products, foodstuff and chemicals will also benefit.


Canada: Entered into force provisionally in September 2017.

Winners and losers: The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) will double the current amount of European cheese entering the Canadian market, to an estimated 30,000 tonnes. Canadian dairy farmers may lose out as a result. Restrictions will be lifted on volumes of Canadian beef and pork exports to Europe. Meanwhile, Canada’s wineries will face stiffer competition from European winemakers no longer facing high import tariffs.


Mexico: Agreement in principle reached on new EU-Mexico association, to be finalised by end of 2018.

Winners and losers: According to the EU, European agricultural exports will benefit the most. The new deal will provide preferential access for many cheeses which currently have tariffs of up to 20%, and significant new access for many others within annual quotas. Tariffs for chocolate (currently up to 30%) and pasta (to 20%) will also be lowered. Mexico’s banana farmers, who exported almost 65,000 tonnes of the fruit to the EU last year, will benefit from a reduction in quota tariffs which will enable them to out-compete Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala.