An analysis of EU trade partner countries, whose systems of governance range from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies, shows a great diversity among them with respect to human rights and democracy indicators. These indicators have a relatively balanced distribution in the different categories (Figures 2 and 3 below give visual information on the indicators as provided by the EU-based Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute and the US-based Freedom House).
To date, the EU has never suspended trade preferences under a bilateral trade agreement containing an HRC or a linkage clause to an HRC. The presence of so many countries with a problematic human rights and democracy record among the parties to the EU’s trade agreements may of course raise questions. However, a common misconception is that the primary objective of the clause is to enable the EU to place sanctions on its partners by blocking their enhanced access to its market as granted by the agreement. In fact, the clause gives the EU a legal basis to address human rights issues with its partners in various other, more constructive ways. By affirming the parties’ commitment to human rights, the clause opens the way to political dialogue, consultations and a range of cooperation measures in the field of human rights and democracy (e.g. on the implementation of international human rights instruments). The aim is therefore to create incentives for improving respect for and protection of human rights, and this has been the EU’s preferred approach.