A little known fact in Europe is that the Member States of the European Union no longer have an independent foreign trade policy. More than 60% of their trade is intra-European and as such depends on the rules of the single market which prohibit any trade protection or trade promotion measures [see section 6.1]. For the remaining 40% of their trade, the main instruments of commercial policy, the Common Customs Tariff, the common import arrangements and the common protective measures are in the hands of the organs of the EU, the Commission and the Council. Together they contribute to ensuring an even competition playing field for European businesses, giving them access to equal prices for imported raw materials and other products they need. At the same time, the common commercial policy facilitates the work of European importers who can use a uniform import licence, valid throughout the EU.
With almost 17% of world exports, in 2009, compared to 13% for China, 11% for the United States and 6% for Japan, the European Union has a stake in the freedom of international trade. Far from building "Fortress Europe" through trade protection, the European Community/Union made very important concessions, particularly in the agricultural sector, to allow the conclusion of the GATT Uruguay Round. It should be noted that one Member State acting alone could not make such concessions without jeopardising its economy and certainly not one single state could obtain from its trading partners the concessions obtained by the EC/EU. Being the world’s leading commercial superpower, the EU is certainly respected and heeded in the context of the World Trade Organisation.
One of the central principles of the latter is that of balancing mutual advantages (global reciprocity). This means, for the European Union, that it can tie access for third country economic operators to the benefits of its single market with the existence of similar opportunities for European businesses in the country in question, or at the least to the absence of any discrimination. This implies a case-by-case approach for third countries, but a common approach by the Member States. The single market obliges the latter to show a united face to third countries.
However, whereas customs tariffs are diminishing thanks to the Uruguay Round and the rules of the World Trade Organisation impose in principle the freedom of international exchanges, European companies are still faced with obstacles to trade and investment in a large number of countries. Thus, an environment conducive to international exchanges and investments is still lacking in many Asian and South American countries and even the United States resorts to protectionist measures under pressure from its industries in difficulties, such as steel [see section 25.7]. The European Union has the necessary power to redress these situations through a bilateral approach (action vis-à-vis the countries concerned) and a multilateral approach (actions within the WTO); but the Member States must lend a supporting hand in combating trade barriers by joining forces with the European Commission. To face the problems arising from the globalisation of trade, the EU should not try to block this irreversible phenomenon, as advocated by anti-globalisation groups, but to harness it by strict international rules and strong institutions [see section 1.5.6].