Towards a gender-sensitive EU external trade policy

Written by and

Gender equality is one of the central priorities of the EU’s external policies and actions. According to the Gender Action Plan III, 85% of the EU’s external relations actions ought to contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2025. This ambition aligns with the more recently formulated “Feministische Außenpolitik” of German foreign policy minister Annalena Baerbock. The increasing attention to material gender equality and gender-sensitive trade policy – as opposed to merely formal “gender-neutral” trade policy – is a welcome development. As the end of the term of the EU’s Gender Action Plan is nearing, it is especially pertinent to scrutinise the EU’s efforts in fulfilling these goals. Three recent free trade agreements (FTAs) between the European Union, on the one hand, and New Zealand, Canada, and Chile, respectively, on the other hand, contain specific provisions on gender equality and gender sensitivity. At the same time, the EU can and should do more to realise its gender equality ambitions in free trade agreements.

The relevance of gender to international trade

Existing gender stereotypes and cultural norms, enforcement of gender roles, and unequal access to means of production and capital all influence local and regional impacts of trade liberalisation stemming from trade agreements. “Gender-neutral” trade policies that do not consider gender impacts during their development are likely to detrimentally affect women.

Already in its Resolution on Gender Equality in EU Trade Agreements from 2018, the European Parliament stressed how trade agreements may exacerbate gender disparities. FTAs frequently influence employment structures within the partner country, causing losses in employment within export-oriented sectors, in which the majority of workers are women. Occupational segregation between men and women, thus, has an immense impact on who reaps the benefits of an FTA. This is especially relevant within economically less developed trade partners of the EU, in which inequalities between men and women are systematically greater.

Gender-neutral trade policies ignore these underlying disparities. Accordingly, the EU’s Gender Action Plan III and the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 include a clear commitment to gender mainstreaming in EU’s external relations policies, among others by substantial gender analyses in impact assessments and robust sections on gender equality in new trade agreements.

For example, the Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) done prior to the trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur observes that “as women are underrepresented in tradeable sectors, […] women are expected to benefit from employment and income gains less so than men” and “risks for widening rather than narrowing indicators of inequality exist across Mercosur as men are expected to benefit disproportionately” (p. 173). Similarly, the SIA performed for a trade agreement between the EU and ASEAN showed that mostly higher-skilled workers are expected to benefit from the agreement, which has a comparatively lower representation of women than the lower-skilled workforce.

A more gender-sensitive EU trade policy would not only align with EU’s commitments made under Gender Action Plan III, it is, in fact, legally mandated by the EU’s constituting treaties and its Charter of Fundamental Rights. Several legal sources impose a duty on the EU to actively promote gender equality in its external trade policy. Article 8 of the TFEU explicitly requires the EU to “aim at promot[ing] gender equality [through all its actions inside and outside of the Union].” The equality between men and women is also enshrined in Article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is binding on all EU institutions in their exercise of both internal and external powers. The obligation for the EU to maintain and spread its values in its external relations is further confirmed by Articles 3(5) and 21 TEU. The EU’s duty to promote its values and principles in the context of its external trade policy was also affirmed by the Court of Justice of the European Union in Opinion 2/15. 

Taking stock of gender mainstreaming and gender-sensitivity in EU trade policy

The EU is currently a party to 24 FTAs and economic partnerships, including several that are currently being negotiated or ratified. Half of these trade agreements do not include meaningful gender-sensitive commitments: five of them merely contain weak, aspirational provisions such as a general reference to nondiscrimination, or equality in access to education (for example, the case of the FTA with Singapore). They do not include any provisions addressing the potential negative impacts of the agreement on women. Moreover, seven of these trade agreements lack any specific gender-related provisions whatsoever (for instance, the EU-Mersosur agreement or EU economic partnership agreement with Japan).

Some of the “new generation” FTAs, however, include examples of successful gender mainstreaming and illustrate how the EU could improve its promoting of values of gender equality in external relations.

The recently signed agreement between the European Union and New Zealand, for example, includes a specific provision on trade and gender equality (Article 19.4). This provision aims to (indirectly) balance out possible effects of other provisions within trade agreements and tackle structural inequalities more holistically. A similar though less comprehensive provision can be found in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and Thailand.

Second, in the CETA agreement between the EU and Canada, gender equality is actively promoted within provisions that may have an adverse effect on women. Article 8.10(2)(d), for instance, specifically addresses discrimination based on sex in investment. A similar provision to ensure women’s ability to benefit from a trade agreement – notwithstanding existing inequalities – can be found in Article 89(g)(ii) of the Economic partnership agreement with the East African Community, which addresses inequality in the fishing industry, and in the Trade development and cooperation agreement with South Africa, which includes a provision addressing gender equality in small and medium-sized enterprises.

Third, the Advanced framework agreement between the EU and Chile contains a specific chapter on trade and gender equality in which Article 27.1(1) stresses the importance of gender mainstreaming. The agreement also contains provisions that obligate the contracting parties to implement gender-sensitive laws and conclude other gender equality-themed agreements, allowing for the proliferation of gender equality beyond the trade agreement. At the same time, the chapter on trade and gender equality excludes the application of dispute settlement provisions to it, substantially reducing effective enforcement.

Towards a fully gender-sensitive EU external trade policy

The abovementioned examples exemplify the progress that the EU has made in regard to gender-sensitive trade policy, especially in comparison to the twelve trade agreements excluding significant gender equality commitments. In order for the EU to fully comply with its gender equality obligations, however, a lot more needs to be done. The following four actions are indispensable for a fully gender-sensitive EU external trade policy.

First, the European Commission should insist on including the general provisions or chapters regarding gender equality – such as those in the New Zealand–EU Agreement – within every trade agreement negotiated by the EU. The EU is currently in the process of negotiating new FTAs with India, China, Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Only the draft text of the agreement with India presently contains a provision on trade and gender equality. The other four still lack substantial protection of gender equality in trade; the draft agreements with Australia and Indonesia, for example, merely include an incidental mention of gender in regard to multilateral labour standards.

Second, the agreements should include effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for these provisions. A rare example of mandatory monitoring of the benefits of a trade agreement for women and men, respectively, can be found in the Economic Partnership Agreement between CARIFORUM states and the EU. As a matter of principle, gender equality provisions should be enforceable by specific sanctions and/or the dispute settlement mechanism.

Third, the complex issue of addressing the disparate impacts of trade agreements can only be addressed satisfactorily by specific safeguards against adverse gender effects. Several SIAs already include analysis of disparate gender impacts. Frequently, however, the results of these assessments are not sufficiently taken into account in the final agreement. For instance, the SIA performed for the agreement between the EU and Indonesia highlighted that “[m]any SMEs and MSMEs in Indonesia are owned by women […] Yet, due to prevailing gender inequality, these companies often operate in low-value-added sectors […] Due to more conservative views on gender roles and the above-mentioned issues, women-owned businesses find it much harder to internationalize or to integrate into global value chains.” The current draft of the agreement, however, completely fails to address this issue. Hence, the gender-sensitive aspects of these assessments should be taken more seriously. Article 8.10(2)(d) of the CETA and Article 54 of the EU agreement with South Africa show that this is a real possibility which could and should be consistently pursued.

Concluding remarks

The EU’s recently signed free trade agreement with New Zealand is a promising example of a gender-sensitive FTA. The New Zealand FTA, however, is unfortunately still one of the few anomalies in the EU’s external trade agreements. Following the constitutional duty of the EU to integrate gender equality in its external trade policy, gender-sensitivity should be a cornerstone of all EU trade agreements. Incorporating enforceable gender equality provisions into trade agreements, gender-sensitive monitoring of compliance, and taking the gender equality aspects of SIAs seriously are indispensable for a fully gender-sensitive EU trade policy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.