The EU and Upholding Human Rights: Are Trade Deal Stipulations Enough?

By Elena Devereux

With a considerable rise in the social awareness of human rights issues/violations globally, many have alerted attention to how international organizations such as the EU use their power to aid or tackle these situations. Whilst some argue that the EU’s use of trade deals and specific stipulations relating to human rights is an effective means of tackling these situations(Hafner-Burton, 2011), I will argue that this is not necessarily always the case. Alternatively, I argue that if fully committed to, using trade deals could be extremely successful for the Union, though currently they are not displaying enough dedication to upholding and insisting on these stipulations. In this blog post I will highlight where the EU has failed at enforcing human rights in trade agreements, specifically in Vietnam and where they have the potential to greatly improve on their approach.

The Treaty of Lisbon, ratified in 2009, undoubtedly has had a significant impact on the EU as a body that imposes human rights regulations, most prominently making the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – consisting of 50 rights –  legally binding. Certain theorists have claimed that the EU presents a renewed energy to promoting human rights standards and democracy that widely differs from their previous attitude prior to the 2000s (Börzel and Risse, 2005). The European Commission’s renewed dedication to upholding human rights is largely down to their desire to protect and encourage European integration. It’s first notable moves towards protecting human rights occurred in the 1990s, when they began to regulate human rights violations in PTAs as a result of mass protest towards integration due to the lack of labour protection (Hafner-Burton, 2011). More recently, fact checking organisation Full Fact has reported that the Commission brought 11 cases to the CJEU, stating they had breached the human rights charter. This does appear promising, and suggests that there is real enforcement through trade deal stipulations, but when looking at the motivations and actual negotiation process, arguably there is room for improvement..

The EU have shown a hugely increased effort and dedication towards human rights in their trade deals and dialogues with other countries, but the efforts of certain EU bodies in enforcing human rights are not all that they could be. Largely, this stems from the fact that trade and human rights are discussed separately by two different bodies before the final decision regarding Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs) are made. Trade negotiations are delegated to the European Commission and stipulations regarding human rights are delegated to the European External Action Service (EEAS). The separation, though it could be deemed insignificant, gives increased power to the Commission, which in turn empowers exporters and importers, therefore undermining the significance of human rights in negotiations, additionally reducing the chance of NGOs to make a difference.

Likewise, the lack of integration between the two often means that the Commision and other bodies, such as the Parliament, are at odds when it comes to deciding what countries should be held accounted for. For example, when negotiating with Vietnam in 2014, the Commision were arguably far more lenient when it came to human rights. Whilst the EEAS and Parliament attempted to adopt a resolution on Vietnam with the purpose of alerting attention to human rights violations there, significant opposition to binding human rights clauses showed within the Commision, and it was disputed that due to previous commitments made in a PCA, there was little need for the inclusion within trade negotiations (Sicurelli, 2015). Clearly this indicates that lack of cohesiveness by the EU’s institutions hinders trade deal stipulations from being enough to promote human rights, if human rights were incorporated into the main trade negotiations, perhaps stipulations would have a more positive impact on human rights standards.

Vietnam relies heavily on trade with the EU, it is the EU’s second biggest trade partner after China, exporting $42.5 billion worth of goods to the EU in 2018. This means that the EU has significant bargaining power which is unfortunately difficult to harness due to the conflict between interest groups and values in the EU, specific movements by interest groups to achieve certain interests have ultimately marginalised human rights issues in negotiations (Hoang and Sicurelli, 2017).  Moreover, the overarching EU aim of promoting trade and integration undermines the importance of human rights stipulations, it has been suggested that the Commission lacks commitment in enforcing human rights clauses, neglecting to explicitly reference ‘the possibility of suspending mutual trade commitments in the case of human rights violations’ (Sicurelli, p.241, 2015). Other theorists have claimed that the EU lacks the political will to tackle human rights issues, due to their main motivations being to strategically advance internationally through trade (Búrca, 2011) as opposed to promoting human rights. This would explain why, more recently, the EU has continued to negotiate with Vietnam despite further human rights violations (Freedomhouse stated in 2019, there were 244 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam) – the decision has been widely critiqued by NGOS, who point out the continued convictions of activists, lawyers and so forth in the country (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

It is evident that the Treaty of Lisbon did make considerable differences to the stance the EU has taken going forward in regards to human rights violations when making trade agreements. It’s enforcement of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by making it legally binding, most definitely bolstered the significance of human rights clauses in agreements. Nonetheless, the organisation of the EU in the frame of trade negotiations severely limits the effects of trade deal stipulations in making significant human rights change. If the EU were to integrate trade and human rights discussions, and perhaps prioritise human rights at a slightly higher level, the potential of trade deal stipulations could evidently be reached. Currently, it can easily be seen that if committed to, trade deal stipulations will be even more efficient in enforcing human rights standards globally by the EU.


  •  Börzel, T. & Risse, T, 2004. One Size Fits All! EU Policies for the Promotion of Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law.
  • De Burca, G., 2011. The road not taken: the European Union as a global human rights actor. American Journal of international law, 105(4), pp.649-693.
  • Hafner-Burton, E.M., 2011. Forced to be good: Why trade agreements boost human rights. Cornell University Press.
  • Hai Hoang, H & Sicurelli, D. 2017, ‘The EU’s preferential trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam. Market vs.normative imperatives’, Contemporary Politics, Vol 23, no. 4,pp. 369-387
  • Human Rights Watch, 2020. ‘NGOs Urge European Parliament to Postpone Consent to EU-Vietnam Trade Deals’ Viewed 05 March, 2020
  • Meissner, K.L. & McKenzie, L. 2019, “The paradox of human rights conditionality in EU trade policy: when strategic interests drive policy outcomes”, Journal of European Public Policy, vol. 26, no. 9, pp. 1273-1291.
  • Rozenburg, J. 2016 Viewed 05 March 2020
  • Sicurelli, D. 2015, ‘The EU as a Promoter of Human Rights in Bilateral Trade Agreements: The Case of the Negotiations with Vietnam’ Journal of Contemporary European Research, vol 11, no. 2, pp.230-245



This blog post was written as part of the coursework for INRL20160 – Introduction to EU Politics.


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