The Strange Politics of U.S.-EU Free Trade

Normally special-interest groups harmed by competition can fight free trade. Where did they go?

President Obama’s announcement that the United States and the European Union will begin negotiating a bilateral agreement on trade and investment this year is significant. For all the growing importance of China and other emerging markets, the U.S. and EU are still the world’s two largest economies, encompassing half of global economic activity. Transatlantic trade is roughly $700 billion per year, and U.S.-EU investment surpasses investment in and from Asia. Because of the size of these economies, and the enormous amount of trade and investment between them, a lowering of trade and investment barriers would have a sizeable impact on the global economy.

Robert Manning has argued in these spaces that interest in a transatlantic deal may be due to ongoing low growth and austerity: lowering trade barriers between the world’s two largest markets could stimulate economic growth without fiscal expenditure. But government austerity and low growth have historically been associated with trade protectionism, not liberalization. The 1930s, believed by some to be the most apt analogue for the present situation, was marked by tariff increases, currency wars, and restrictions on international investment. Why should it be different now? Because the current political situation facing the United States and the EU differs from ordinary trade politics in ways which may have far-reaching implications for international trade and investment regimes.

Standard accounts of trade politics often begin with reference to Mancur Olson's logic of collective action, whereby small groups with a common interest may be able to politically mobilize more effectively than large groups. Thus, policy often benefits the minority at the expense of the majority. Trade generates diffuse benefits for large numbers of consumers in the form of lower prices, but concentrates costs on a smaller numbers of producers who suffer from foreign competition. Consumers may find it difficult to overcome collective action problems and achieve political influence because the gains for each individual are relatively small despite being large for the group. Producers who would suffer from trade have strong incentives to act politically, because the average cost to each of them is much higher.

Therefore, the logic of collective action expects trade policy to be protectionist absent two conditions: A countervailing small group of comparatively advantaged producers that is able mobilize politically in favor of open trade for their goods or services, and an international negotiating process that allows states to grant reciprocal concessions: in other words, you liberalize your comparatively disadvantaged markets and I'll liberalize mine.

The trade deal that Washington and Brussels are negotiating inverts this dynamic. Because U.S.-EU trade is already relatively open, both the benefits and costs of further liberalization are diffuse. As a result, all of the major interests seem to be in support. As the New York Times noted, “there does not seem to be any broad-based political opposition to an EU-U.S. trade agreement, as there was to NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement].” Since the costs to producers of mobilizing politically in opposition to greater openness may outweigh the gains, such a deal may even make typical redistribution via side payments unnecessary (as recently described by Daniel Altman). As a result, the standard domestic political situation is inverted: the groups most likely to lobby the government will be those that benefit from trade, rather than those that suffer from it.

A U.S.-EU trade deal could also impact future international economic negotiations in atypical ways. Some, like Jagdish Bhagwati, are skeptical of bilateral trade agreements, believing that they lessen momentum for multilateral deals—such as the ongoing (and never-ending) Doha round run by the World Trade Organization (WTO)—which are more difficult to complete but result in greater global liberalization. Walter Russell Mead has recently made a similar argument in response to the proposed U.S.-EU deal. But the Doha round of WTO talks is all but dead, as the politics remains intractable. And yet, perhaps ironically, a U.S.-EU bilateral deal could resuscitate WTO negotiations if it provides an impetus for antagonists in the Doha round to make further concessions rather than be locked out of trade arrangements. A Doha agreement that privileges U.S. and European interests may contradict its ostensible purpose as a “development round,” but developing nations would not benefit from being excluded from preferential access to the world’s largest markets either. So Bhagwati could be wrong: bilateral trade deals could actually provide momentum for completion of multilateral deals, at least in cases like this.

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