Civil society involvement

What can civil society do?

Civil society can get involved in the implementation of social clauses in various ways:

  • attending sessions of ministerial council meetings
  • filing complaints in case of alleged breach of obligations
  • participating in cooperation activities

Civil society organizations tend to underutilize the mechanisms at their disposal to ensure the respect of workers’ rights embodied in trade agreements. In the Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement (Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement [CETA]), a civil society forum was created to encourage civil society organizations to participate in the implementation of the agreement.


The European model

Since the adoption in 2015 of the strategy «trade for all», a new approach to transparency was adopted during negotiations of trade agreements in Europe. For each ongoing negotiation, the European Commission now makes available to all, via its website, a large number of documents which include the objectives, proposals and positions intended to put forward during the  negotiations, as well as the preparatory studies leading to the adoption of such position. Through this comprehensive documentation, civil society organizations can engage in an informed dialogue with the negotiating leaders during consultative meetings organized by the Commission. Therefore, the European Commission recognizes that transparency and dialogue must be applied at all stages of the negotiation process, from the definition of the objectives to the negotiations themselves, as well as the phases following the negotiations. This is a major change because civil society organizations often felt that consultations only aimed to inform about the negotiating positions already agreed and the texts of agreements already drafted behind closed doors.

In this regard, civil society organizations often criticize the lack of transparency in Canada’s trade agreement negotiations. However, Canada recently implemented a consultation process to allow civil society organizations to express their positions during the negotiations.


Ways to facilitate the participation of civil society

  • Facilitate the filing of complaints. This is often seen as a cumbersome and complex procedure requiring a high degree of legal expertise.
  • Establish a national process to ensure consultation on a regular basis.
  • Establish a civil society forum associated with the agreement or similar agreements. This would strengthen the links between organizations, across borders, and become a privileged forum for information-sharing.
  • Involve and inform civil society during the negotiations of the agreements. Civil society could take part in the definition of objectives, receive information on the negotiating agenda and have access to government preparatory documents.

Arguments in favour

  • This concern for transparency, fairness and accountability would allow parties to recognize the essential role of civil society in the implementation of labour chapters.
  • Transnational solidarity will be strengthened by the development of cooperation mechanisms between civil society members.
  • The involvement of civil society ensures that the interests of the people are represented in trade agreements and not only those of lobbyists who have access to those in power.

Arguments against

  • Trade could be hampered  by excessive participation, which would undermine the objectives of free trade agreements.
  • Participation mechanisms are fronts to legitimize trade agreements and have no concrete consequences.
  • The government’s negotiating objectives must remain confidential to ensure a degree of autonomy and negotiating leeway.

What they said:

«Trade unions and employers (social partners), together with civil society organisations, should be able to monitor the implementation of all trade agreements.»

European Trade Union Confederation, 2017



«[P]ublic disclosure of confidential negotiating texts would mean a weaker hand for […] officials at the negotiating table.»

John Murphy. US Chamber of Commerce, April 2015



«Because the negotiating process combines a general shield from the public with privileged access for industry advisers, the substance of […] trade agreements does not represent truly national interests.»

Margot E. Kaminski, Professor of Law. Ohio State University, April 2015



«The fact that the negotiations are not public is not a democratic deficit. Negotiations between a boss and his employees’ union also are not public.»

Pierre Marc Johnson, Quebec’s chief negotiator for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union, 2011



«Most social and economic groups are excluded from trade negotiations and always have been. They have no say or bargaining power to influence trade deals. The Civil Society Dialogue gives NGOs access to these processes, while providing invaluable information and communication on the decisions being made. Yet we still need to make sure that our voices truly have an impact on policy.»

Karin Ulmer, Trade Issues Expert for the Association of World Council of Churches related to Development Organisations (APRODEV), 2011



«[…] in some states of the United States, federal trade policy is revised on a regular basis by Citizen Trade Policy Commissions.»

Pierre-Yves Sérinet (RQIC) and Stuart Trew (Trade Justice Network), 2013