The practice of linking human rights with trade liberalization has gained ground among many trade partners. Not only the EU, but also other important trade powers, such as the US and Canada, embed human and labour-rights provisions in their new trade agreements.  

For the EU, this ensues inevitably from the normative vision underlying all its external policies, as enshrined in the Treaties. Accordingly, the EU has committed to respecting and promoting human rights and democracy through its external action.  

The main mechanism for incorporating human rights into the EU’s bilateral agreements consists of an ‘essential elements’ human rights clause that enables one party to take appropriate measures in case of serious breaches by the other party.  

The clause, which also covers democratic principles and often the rule of law, is more than just a legal mechanism enabling the unilateral suspension of trade commitments in times of crisis. It enshrines the parties’ commitments to human rights and thus puts EU relations with third countries on a solid regulatory base, opening the path to dialogue and cooperation on human rights issues.  

So far, the EU has clearly preferred a constructive engagement to more restrictive measures and has not activated the clause to suspend trade preferences under any of its trade agreements. Civil society and the European Parliament have, on the other hand, encouraged the European Commission to use the clause in a more robust way in order to respond to serious breaches of human rights and democratic principles.