This article addresses the failure by scholars of EU trade policy to fully explain the difficulties faced in realizing the ‘normative’ goals contained within the European Union’s external trade policy and the conviction that it might be a ‘force for good’ through trade. In seeking to account for and, in particular, move beyond the failure to fully explain these difficulties, the article adopts a critical social science approach that focuses on relations of domination and the (potentially misleading) appearances that such relations tend to uphold. In contrast to the traditional view of the EU as a potential ‘force for good’, we conceptualize it as a site of domination, focusing in particular on three mechanisms through which this domination is achieved – expansive market (capitalist) exchange, the ‘Othering’ that tends to accompany such processes of expansion, and the de-politicization necessary to achieve and/or legitimate these processes. The article proceeds to explore recent developments in EU trade policy, and in particular the Global Europe agenda and associated new generation of free trade agreements with trade partners in Asia and Latin America. In doing so, the article examines the extent to which processes of market expansion, Othering and de-politicization have been realized in recent EU trade policy. It argues for a conceptualization of the European Union as a conveniently-conflicted counter-hegemon through trade, whereby the EU presents itself as a potential ‘force for good’ through trade, but simultaneously avoids the realization of that potential (and justifies its non-realization) by evoking the conveniently-conflicted status that arises from institutional constraints and both internal disagreements and external differences. This account, we claim, is both more plausible than the existing empirical accounts in that it is able to explain the consistent promotion of an apparently unrealizable ‘progressive’ agenda by the European Union, and an improvement upon those accounts in that it illuminates and demystifies relations of domination and certain ideas that act to uphold them.
EU trade policy, critical social science
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