Axel Marx, Lecture, EU trade

Key Takeaways on EU Trade and Human Rights


Professor Axel Marx, of the University of Leuven, spoke at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human rights and Humanitarian Law about the EU’s approach towards integrating human rights provisions to EU trade policy and assessed whether the current approach is working and on possible changes to be made to this approach. Here are six key arguments he made.

  1. There is a competition for EU states to lower costs of production, causing a decrease of labour rights and environmental protection. This creates a so-called “race to exploitation”, as they are racing for competitive advantage while simultaneously increasing exploitation. The “race to exploitation” phenomenon is, less controversially, called the “race to the bottom”, and causes negative labour and human rights effects.
  2. It is rare for the consequences of these to be publicized, but occasionally they have been. For example, in the case of Nike and child labour.
  3. It is important to remember that although the EU is not a state, it is a key actor in trade and there are trade policies that the EU can export in order to prevent the “race to the bottom”.
  4. As a result, the EU is attempting to use its place in the market to encourage other entities (states and companies) to comply with standards regarding human rights.
  5. However, there needs to be clearer and enforceable sanctions put on countries that don’t abide by human rights laws and treaties. Sanctioning countries economically often does more harm than good, causing more poverty. This is why sanctions need to exist which don’t worsen the human rights situation or exacerbate human rights abuses.
  6. In the past, statistics have been taken to compare the quality of ratification of laws on human rights and the implementation of these laws. This brought to light the phenomenon of the “false positive”, as countries often ratify a law but cannot implement it well, due to insufficient funds or technical capacity. Therefore, the statistics present a false positive.

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