Free Trade versus Democracy and Social Standards in the European Union: Trade-Offs or Trilemma?

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2463

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Free Trade versus Democracy and Social Standards in the European Union: Trade-Offs or Trilemma?

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Abstract:  This article aims at conceptualising, in analytical as well as normative-theoretical terms, the tensions between free trade, democratic and social standards, and national sovereignty that are named in Dani Rodrik´s “globalisation trilemma” for the case of the European Union (EU). It is argued that the trilemma concept is much more fitting to the EU than a simple trade-off concept. This model offers a conceptual path to both analysing existing tensions and thinking of resolving them: a) the EU has, indeed, been intervening into national democracies and national sovereignty as its legislation is superior to national legislation; b) EU legislation and judgements of the Court of Justice of the EU have been reducing national social standards; c) executives and numerous new institutions and agencies with indirect legitimation have taken over competencies that formerly lay in the domain of national directly legitimated legislatives; and d) these negative effects relate to the EU’s giving preference to the liberalisation of free trade of capital, goods and services over democracy, social standards, and national sovereignty. Against the framework of the globalisation trilemma, analysis is combined with normative-theoretical judgements on the quality democracy of the setting that has been found and a conceptual discussion. The article concludes by discussing the perspectives of the setting examined and the possible paths to solutions, arguing that in order to keep a high level of economic integration, democracy, and social standards in the EU, national sovereignty needs to give way.

Keywords:  democracy; European Union; free trade; globalisation trilemma; social standards



© Claudia Wiesner. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.