EU Values in International Trade

EU Values in International Trade

The EU’s Common Commercial Policy (which covers EU trade and investment law and policy) is not only a tool to protect Europe’s commercial and strategic interests. It is also an important and powerful foreign policy tool. Under Article 21 TEU, the EU’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles that lay at its core, such as democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the principles of international law.

Article 21 also aspires to safeguard a number of objectives and interests that are not economic in nature (i.e. to preserve peace, strengthen international security, and preserve the environment). As Article 207 TFEU clearly instructs, the EU’s trade policy must be conducted in the context of those principles and objectives.

The combination of the EU’s trade policy with non-trade objectives creates tensions at multiple levels.

  • First, the EU’s institutions and agencies may differ in terms of the weight to be given to Europe’s commercial interests against non-trade values.
  • Second, there is also an inevitable discordance among EU member states in terms of how precisely they incorporate non-trade values in implementing the EU’s trade policies and law.
  • Third, there are also tensions among various non-trade objectives. For instance, restrictions on international trade on the basis of human rights may not contribute to the effective achievement of sustainable development.
  • Finally, the invocation of non-trade values creates a tension with non-EU third states which may not situate trade law and policies as an effective vehicle to achieve non-trade values. At the same time, the dissonance between the EU’s policies and those of other trade partners creates an opportunity for EU institutions to be an active norm-setting actor at the international level.

The interpretation of specific values and objectives is context dependent, varying according to the institution and actors involved in the formulation and implementation of the EU’s trade and investment policy. This is determinative of the nature of the abovementioned multilevel tensions. The multi-level tensions result in uncertainties in the EU’s value-based international trade and investment policies, which undermine the competitiveness of the EU and its normative presence at the global level in the long run.


You are welcome to contact the coordinators of this building block, Alexandra Hofer and Thomas Verellen, with your research inquiries and other suggestions.

Related research projects

The Building Block builds on one of the previous projects of RENFORCE regarding ‘External Effects of EU Law’ (2015-2018).

The Building Block also collaborates with other RENFORCE research projects, including ‘Illegal Environmental Markets’ and ‘Digitalisation and Technological Innovation’ building blocks.

Opportunities for visiting researchers

The Building Block on EU Value-Based Trade welcomes visiting researchers at the junior or senior levels, who wish to share or connect their ongoing research with the themes of the Building Block during a visiting stay in Utrecht. Please contact the coordinators.

Research and other output

Building Block researchers actively publish their research outcomes, which can be found in their respective profile pages.

On top of those publications, our Building Block has previously published a special issue of Europe and the World: A law review (2019):

Past events

The Building Block on EU Value-Based Trade has been organising a series of workshops and seminars in association with external researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders. Our latest event was:

2 December 2022, WorkshopTrade and security in the EU’s unilateral trade and investment policy 
On December 2, 2022, Renforce’s building block on EU values in international trade organised a workshop on the theme of trade and security in the EU’s unilateral trade and investment policy. Following a call for papers, scholars of EU law, international law and international relations from across the world gathered in Utrecht to discuss and offer each other feedback on their work on various issues within the theme of the workshop. The workshop took place as the European Union was upgrading its unilateral trade instruments toolbox as part of its ‘open strategic autonomy’ agenda. Existing instruments have been reformed, and new instruments have been adopted or were in the legislative pipeline. The instruments raise a number of questions: legal questions as to their compatibility with international law and EU constitutional law, as well as questions of effectiveness and legitimacy in light of the EU’s commitment to a values-based trade policy.