JEF Belgium: Free trade for the future?

, by JEF Belgium

JEF Belgium: Free trade for the future?
Image: Valdas Miskinis, Pixabay

What do you associate trade agreements with? Perhaps you think of big business and industry, untransparent procedures, or complex clauses that no average human can understand. True, there are issues with these topics. But do you think of “youth” when you think of “trade”? Maybe not.

Perhaps you heard about EU trade agreements with Mercosur, TTIP, or CETA, despite the fact that there are many more. The EU-Mercosur agreement has been under extreme scrutiny since 2019, when deforestation fires in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil made headlines and French President Emmanuel Macron called for rejection of the agreement. The concerns - which still persist today - are broad, from social impact on indigenous communities to trade in climate-unfriendly products like cars, or European farmers that are concerned by competition with cheaper beef from the Mercosur area.

Although social and environmental critiques have reached the heart of the debate, the dimension of youth, despite the perspective of climate justice, has been widely overlooked. To be fair, the youth dimension is generally overlooked in trade agreements.

The three most relevant sectors of trade for youth

Why should young people be concerned about trade, and why should trade be concerned about young people? Let us not take for granted that experts with decades of experience automatically represent the interests of young people.


If we look at products, which are widely traded in the EU’s trade agreements, then it is often agricultural products which exist in abundance and rather serve some form of overconsumption or rather some bigger business interests. Industrial farming, however, leads to a reduction of workforce in the countryside and has negative implications for the environment.

Young people are less likely to pursue a job in food production in Europe nowadays, but the trend goes in a similar direction outside of Europe. With trade agreements supporting industrial agriculture, a potential generation of new farmers and thus skilled people who know how to grow food is shrinking. This, in turn, could lead to even more industrial applications in the future due to the smaller workforce, resulting in a vicious cycle of a deteriorating environment.

Cars, fossil fuels, and climate change

An infamous example of trade among EU-Mercosur countries is the “cars for beef” issue. European carmakers could boost their sales through that agreement. While the EU is preparing to phase out the combustion engine by 2035, carmakers hope to sell their fossil fuel-based cars elsewhere.

This not only results inevitably in higher CO2 emissions through the burning of oil, but it also makes it harder to switch to alternative and sustainable transport once more people have access to combustion engines. Can there not be a way that trade opens opportunities for sustainable mobility and climate-friendly public procurement?

Digital trade

At least in the sector of digitalization there seem to be plenty of more obvious opportunities for young people. Trade agreements can open new doors, such as providing new chances for investments, facilitating digital data exchange, intellectual property or trade in physical products, components, and materials critical to the digital economy such as data centres and consumer products. The digital sector is driven by young people and entrepreneurial minds but has many more opportunities in the future. Although travelling might be harder due to future pandemics and lack of sustainable long-distance travel, the virtual world will keep young minds connected across continents. Investing in the digital economy is investing in youth.

Wind of change in the world of trade

Internationally trading businesses should consider that youth unemployment has different dimensions, especially outside of Europe. By selling their products in third countries, youth employment opportunities can spill over locally. For example, IT-products sold in new regions offer jobs first for repairing and recycling. Local start-ups can compete with these products and enable new entrepreneurship.

Trading unsustainable products, on the other hand, locks in young people in work that harm their own futures. Under fair and sustainable competition rules, trade could encourage young entrepreneurs in becoming new market entrants. Unfortunately, in many regions young people are still excluded from fair job markets after they leave formal school. Worse, many children are still forced to work or work in harsh conditions before they finish their education.

From a youth empowerment perspective, fair trade and due diligence with trade EU partners have had loopholes for too long. Strong regulation for human rights’ respect in the value chain of European companies means showing solidarity with children and youth on the other side of trade. This benefits both sides and enables a level playing field among young trading partners on both sides of trade.

This approach must, however, respect that demographics outside the EU may have a different reality. In the EU, half of the population is younger than 42.6 years old. In Mexico, where the EU negotiates an agreement, the median age is 29.2 years. We do not entirely know how trade affects this. But if we just assume that what is good for Europe must be good for everyone else too, we will be on a slippery path.

This should also be considered in other policies that have an external dimension, such as initiatives on due diligence on human rights and the environment, or deforestation-free supply chains.

Five recommendations for trade that is fit for future generations

Once we understand the dimension of youth in international trade, we must take active measures to bring inclusion forward.

First, businesses and the EU should conduct value chain analyses and spot opportunities for young people before a trade agreement is concluded. This should enable decision makers to make better judgement about the social sustainability of trade sections and evaluate how future-proof trade would be.

Second, the youth should have a stronger role in the consultation of trade agreements on both sides. In this way, they can speak up from until now new perspectives and represent specific interests. This could come in form of letting recognized youth organizations being able to form official opinions through EU institutions as an early step. Also, transparent agreements foster public support, by which they can also bring future generations of multiple societies closer together.

Third, once trade agreements are in place, the EU and its partners should monitor the progress made on youth employment and to what extent relevant sectors have developed positively.

Fourth, while some trade agreements of the EU need to be ratified by national parliaments (or regional in the case of Belgium), the voting from the age of 16 onwards in all EU countries would made trade finally a topic more important to young people. Since trade agreements so far have often benefitted big and environmentally harmful industries, the youth could raise their own voice on matters that concern their future.

Fifth, the EU should implement reciprocity, meaning that its trade partners follow the same principles on youth inclusion and vice versa. An EU that cares about young people in Europe should also recognize the needs of next generations in other continents.

From the talk to the walk

To bring youth to the discussion table, a lot of talk is needed even beforehand. This article aims to bring up new ideas for young people and decision makers, to look for new engagement methods. Young people and their representatives should come together to discuss what kind of trade is good for our future, so that they can speak with one voice.

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