The Role of Plurilateral Agreements in the UK’s Post-Brexit Trade Strategy


This article was originally published on 16 January on the blog of the UK Trade Forum.


The inconclusive outcome of the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December 2017 has once again strengthened calls for plurilateral or ‘critical mass’ approaches to break the deadlock in multilateral trade negotiations. The UK government, which has claimed a leadership role in the WTO for the time after Brexit, seems to wholeheartedly support plurilateral trade deals and has repeatedly highlighted the importance of these agreements for Britain’s future commercial relations.

Britain’s post-Brexit trade strategy explains that the UK wishes to remain part of the Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA), to finalise the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) and to resume the negotiations on the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). However, no two plurilaterals are alike and, consequently, challenges and opportunities for Britain vary considerably across these initiatives. Focusing on the three plurilateral agreements highlighted in the white paper, this post discusses the UK’s options and the potential benefits and risks of plurilaterals.

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The Role of Plurilateral Agreements in the UK’s Post-Brexit Trade Strategy

Navigating the Complexities of Investment Protection in the EU Single Market

This draft discusses the current debate over intra-EU bilateral investment treaties (intra-EU BITs). This is an esoteric issue for all who do not have some interest in EU and investment law. But the controversy over these agreements is likely to affect current conceptions of investment protection in trade agreements like the CETA as well as the future of the envisaged Multilateral Investment Court (MIC).

Are bilateral investment treaties between EU member states (intra-EU BITs) compatible with EU law and the rules of the Single Market? The case Slovak Republic v Achmea BV (C-284/16) represents the first opportunity for the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to examine this question and decide on the compatibility of intra-EU BITs with EU law. Even more important, its outcome will determine not only the uncertain future of the 196 intra-EU BITs that remain currently in force as well as ongoing disputes, but also address some of the controversies over the EU’s vision for a multilateral investment court.

Intra-EU BITs have only recently become popular with investors. Most of these treaties date back to the 1990s when one or both countries were not yet a member of the EU. However, the number of investor-state arbitrations based on these agreements has only risen significantly over the last few years: while we rarely saw more than two or three intra-EU arbitrations initiated in a single year before 2011, the number of new cases started to increase rapidly in 2012. In 2015 alone, out of a total of 74 new investment disputes worldwide, 28 were initiated between EU-based investors and EU member states. These figures are based on data in UNCTAD’s Investment Policy Hub. The darker section of each bar indicates the number of arbitrations in which the claimant is an investor based in the EU and the respondent is an EU member state; this includes cases under the multilateral Energy Charter Treaty.

Figure 1 – Number of Investor-State Arbitrations Initiated per Year


EU member states are divided on the issue of intra-EU BITs, with some maintaining that intra-EU BITs are incompatible with the EU treaties and others arguing the opposite. According to the recent opinion in Slovak Republic v Achmea BV, delivered by Advocate General Wathelet on 19 September 2017, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland have all intervened on the side of the investor (Achmea BV). These are mostly home states of investors and have therefore never or rarely been respondents in arbitral proceedings launched by investors. In contrast, the Slovakian position has been supported by a larger group including the Czech Republic, Italy, Spain, Greece, Hungary and Poland, which have all repeatedly been respondents in arbitral proceedings relating to intra-EU investment.

Continue reading “Navigating the Complexities of Investment Protection in the EU Single Market”

Navigating the Complexities of Investment Protection in the EU Single Market

The Spaghetti Bowl: Visualising the Proliferation of Preferential Trade Agreements


The world of preferential trade agreements (PTAs) is rapidly evolving: governments increasingly negotiate on the bilateral and regional level. This activity has created a complex web of PTAs spanning the globe. Economics professor Jagdish Baghwati likened the phenomenon to a “spaghetti bowl” in the early 1990s. Since then, new waves of preferential trade negotiations have swept over different regions, leading to a considerable increase in the overall number of treaties and the network’s density.

The figure above (Click here for a larger version) depicts the whole network of PTAs (a total of 910 treaties, including accessions to base treaties) for 203 countries/customs territories. It is based on the DESTA dataset, which I have visualised using a combination of R and Gephi.

How to read the figure:

  • Countries are depicted as circles, treaties are represented by rectangles; the size of the individual nodes is proportional to their respective number of connections.
  • Lines connect a country with a treaty: individually, they represent membership of a specific country in a PTA.
  • The colours depict geographical regions. Interestingly, the mapping algorithms automatically create regional clusters, which highlights the fact that many governments negotiated the majority of their agreements with states in their immediate neighbourhood.

A few months ago, I also created a dynamic version to visualise these treaty connections.

In comparison, this is how the network looked like in 1995 – when the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established and also approximately when Bhagwati made his observation of the spaghetti bowl: (Click here for the larger version)


The figure above shows all treaties in the DESTA dataset that were concluded before 1996; note that the colouration differs slightly from figure 1.

The Spaghetti Bowl: Visualising the Proliferation of Preferential Trade Agreements

New Article on the Future of Global Trade

Liberia joins World Trade Organization

The current issue of Nueva Sociedad contains our new article titled “Malestar en el libre comercio: Un nuevo rol para la OMC“, which was jointly written with Clara Weinhardt. A shorter and more pointed version of our argument in English is available in International Politics and Society. Find the full text of the Spanish version below.

Malestar en el libre comercio:

Un nuevo rol para la OMC

Cuando se creó la Organización Mundial del Comercio (OMC) hace más de dos décadas, muchos dieron por hecho que las promesas de la globalización económica avanzarían de manera irresistible y que, como consecuencia de ellas, vendría naturalmente la liberalización comercial. No obstante, la política comercial sigue siendo una cuestión en disputa, con importantes consecuencias distributivas en los ámbitos nacional e internacional. Es por ello que es necesario redefinir el papel de la omc: el libre comercio debe complementarse con políticas distributivas justas en el plano nacional, que limiten su potencial disruptivo y debiliten el giro al nacionalismo económico.


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New Article on the Future of Global Trade

Starting my PhD on International Trade Governance


This week I am officially starting my PhD in International Political Economy research at King’s College London. I am really happy that the application process has worked out so well and that I am also part of the 1st cohort of the London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership (LISS DTP) with funding by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)!


My PhD project will examine the role of trade experts and expert knowledge in WTO proceedings with a particular focus on the question how the content and contestation of this ‘trade expertise’ has affected the development and interpretation of the concept of national regulatory autonomy in the international trade system. Despite its importance for policy-making, multilateral negotiations and regime maintenance, this question has remained under-explored in academic research. More information on my project coming soon! I will set up a dedicated page on this blog explaining my PhD topic and aim to publish regular updates on my research progress.Esrc_logo


Starting my PhD on International Trade Governance

Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will restore trust in global trade

In our most recent comment in International Politics and Society, Clara Weinhardt and I argue that institutional reform at the WTO level and fair distributional policies on the domestic level are crucial to reduce income inequality and restore trust in global trade. Read the full article below. A longer version of our argument will soon be published in the Spanish edition of Nueva Sociedad.


Why Trump’s anti-globalism is wrong

Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will close the gap between rich and poor

By Fabian BohnenbergerClara Weinhardt | 26.09.2017

When the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created in 1995, many assumed the promises of open international markets would prove irresistible. Two decades later, the consensus behind the idea of free trade seems to be crumbling. Those on both the left and right are increasingly questioning the benefits of our current approach to economic globalisation.

The WTO’s declining importance in an ever more fragmented global trade system makes it particularly difficult to withstand the strengthening winds of economic nationalism. To restore trust in the global trading system, governments need to make global trade more inclusive and narrow the gap between rich and poor.

The global financial crisis, coupled with increasing inequality, has made people sceptical of globalisation. WTO members are disappointed that after 16 years of negotiations they have still not managed to conclude the Doha Round – which aims to reform the international trading system through the introduction of lower trade barriers and revised trade rules.

Bigger trading nations including the US, the EU, Canada, Japan and China are now turning their attention to bilateral and regional free trade agreements, such as the much-touted CETA agreement between the EU and Canada, and the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between 16 Asian-Pacific countries currently under negotiation.

Continue reading “Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will restore trust in global trade”

Inclusive and fair trade, not protectionism, will restore trust in global trade

New Article on the Precarious Legitimacy of Transnational Trade Governance

Prof. Christian Joerges of the Hertie School of Governance and I recently finished our work on a book chapter that examines the impact of modern trade agreements on democratic policy-making and the ways in which their effects on national governance can be legitimised. The new paper (SSRN download link) is based on a previous version with a slightly different focus that was extensively rewritten by us over the last months. The final version will be published in the forthcoming Research Handbook on the Sociology of International Law edited by Moshe Hirsch and Andrew Lang in the coming months.

A Conflicts-Law Response To The Precarious Legitimacy Of Transnational Trade Governance

The abstract: 

This paper discusses the fundamental tensions between economic globalisation and democratic politics in the field of international trade. New bilateral and regional trade agreements increasingly incorporate other ‘trade-related’ policy areas and threaten to constrain state action and democratic politics. The move towards deeper and more comprehensive trade deals has greatly accentuated grievances and is of exemplary importance in the realms of transnational governance. We examine the decoupling of these agreements from national and democratic control and the resulting legitimacy impasses of transnational governance, based upon the theoretical frameworks of Karl Polanyi and Dani Rodrik. Arguing that politics is not a mistake that gets in the way of markets, we submit our own conceptualisation of transnational legitimacy. In doing so, we suggest a new type of conflicts law which does not seek to overcome socio-economic and political diversity by some substantive transnational regime, but responds to diversity with procedural safeguards, thus ensuring space for cooperative problem-solving and the search for fair compromises.


New Article on the Precarious Legitimacy of Transnational Trade Governance