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WAKE UP EUROPE: The Case for a Principled European External Trade Policy

Strong leadership, in any situation, requires a steady hand to overcome adversity. This leadership must be quick and reactive but also have a clear vision for the incoming future. As decades have passed, it has become more widely accepted to act based not on principle, but on pure pragmatism, on what provides the most investment, the largest number of jobs, etc. In my course at SciencesPo Paris about the EU, however, I learned that this unilateral pragmatism has not dominated the European Union’s external economic policy until very recently. Previously, there was a combination of pragmatism with the will to expand democratic values: Neofunctionalism.

This is the vision, for example, that started the free trade agreements with Japan, MERCOSUR, South Korea, and Vietnam, which has lifted the economies of millions of people and increased the chances for these countries to become stronger democracies. Through trade-based alliances with IndoPacific and Transatlantic partners, the EU has expanded democratic government and financial freedom. However, recent years have brought a different vision, much more focused on profits than the impact investments can make.

Earlier in 2020, for example, the EU had begun considering signing a 5G infrastructure deal with Huawei, a company with strong ties to the CCP. The 5G, for context, is a promising new technology that creates unparalleled internet speed while connecting all actors and consumers who use it. Had this deal been completed, however, it would have given a foreign politically influenced company all access codes to Europe’s power grids, hospitals, security systems, and data records. This effort was ultimately stopped due to a lack of political support. Continuing this trend, however, earlier this year the European Commission had green-lighted an Investment Deal between themselves and the People’s Republic of China which gave unprecedented access for Chinese investors to purchase companies in key industrial sectors. Perhaps most importantly, since 2020, China has become the EU’s largest trading partner, both in exports and imports, replacing the United States. From the functionalist standpoint, this would all be beneficial both economically and trade-wise for the European Union, and thus, it is an effort that should be expanded. This vision, shared by EU bureaucrats for a long time, however, ignores the entire point on which the EU was founded: the respect for human rights and individual freedoms as well as our standing in the world.

While all these examples were beneficial for EU members, the Investment Deal was rejected by a slim majority of the European Parliament. In their letter justifying their vote, many political groups and MEPs pointed at the persecution of scholars in Hong Kong as well as the concerning situation of over one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. By voting down this deal, the European Parliament intended not only to call out Beijing’s human rights abuses but the political acceptance of them.

For context, the European Parliament has not always opposed the Commission. Their leaders usually work together to avoid politicization of non-political issues. In some situations, votes in Parliament can even become ceremonial, as previous Commissions have pushed their way through. As time has passed, however, the Parliament has acquired new powers, and thus, new responsibilities. Now, the Parliament has its own agenda, which may differ from that of the Commission (the Executive) and the Council (the Heads of State and Government). The Chinese Investment Deal is but a very consequential example of this reality.

With their “NAY”, MEPs were sending a message to their fellow Europeans: Wake up! How is it possible that the region with the highest freedom and democracy index was approving investments by individuals who support the rewriting of the Bible and the Quran to fit their President’s agenda? How was the EU ready to adapt our trade standards to match that of a nation where forced labor and inhumane work hours are a part of current history? The answer, shared by many across the European continent, is that through engaging these behaviors we will better them to our level. Recent history, however, has proven that the influence of capital and investment by an authoritarian government tends to be more powerful than the “strongly recommended” of a democratic nation, and this is the reality which the MEPs took into account when voting.

If the EU is to remain a credible actor on the global stage, we must change our direction. In the search for wellbeing and profits, we must not ignore our foreign policy objectives nor the standards that have lifted us to our current position. We must not forget the vision of peace and prosperity that leaders like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann designed for this union and the hope that it gives to the world. If the EU is to become a superpower in the 21st century, our actions must follow our words, and the Commission must use its economic and trade power to expand democratic values across the globe.

This could be done, for example, by limiting trade based on the existence of forced labor in a foreign nation. If such abuse was suspected, the Commission and Parliament should assemble an investigative task force to uncover that reality. If they were unable to determine that there is no forced labor relating to a particular product, then that product should not arrive on EU shores. While this measure may seem moralistic, we must remember history, and learn from it. The EU has a chance to change the world for the better and expand its agenda, they should not give it up.


Ali, Aran. “China Displaces U.S. as the Eu's Largest Trade Partner.” Visual Capitalist, 14 July 2021,

“How Trump Won over Europe on 5G, Cutting China Out.” South China Morning Post, SCMP, 4 Feb. 2021,

Lau, Stuart. “European Parliament Votes to 'Freeze' Investment Deal until China LIFTS SANCTIONS.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 20 May 2021,

Robin Emmott, Gabriel Crossley. “China, EU Aim for Investment Pact by Year-End, Diplomats Say.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 18 Dec. 2020,

Xie, John. “EU-China Relations Enter Downward Spiral.” Voice of America, 2 Apr. 2021,

GRAPHICS CREDIT: “'No Progress' in CHINA Meeting European Demands as Deal Clock Ticks.” South China Morning Post, 27 July 2020,


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