By Michael Emerson, Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, and Senior Research Scholar at IIASA

Any substantive common economic space from ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ would require the reduction or elimination of tariffs and key non-tariff barriers (such as technical product standards) within a wide-ranging free trade agreement (FTA). For the EU this seems to be an advantageous proposition from an economic standpoint. However, one would expect the pre-conditions posed by the EU for the opening of negotiations to be several and stringent, particularly in terms of political progress over the Ukraine conflict, Belarus’ membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and better compliance with WTO rules, with a reduction in protectionist policies in Russia especially.

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The issue of tariffs is of high political and economic significance, but still a conceptually simple matter. By contrast, the removal of non-tariff barriers is immensely complex, involving dozens or hundreds of regulations and thousands of product standards. We therefore examined the non-tariff issue in some detail [1].

Surprising as it may seem, the harmonization of product standards has actually already progressed as a result of the autonomous policy of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and its member states to adopt increasingly international and European standards. Around 30 sector-specific framework regulations have been adopted by the EAEU, based on EU directives, and backed up by some 5,830 product-specific standards, which are identical to those of the EU (to a large degree EU standards are identical to those of the International Standards Organization).

Therefore, at least for industrial products, there is already a promising basis for an agreement between the EU and EAEU. An important further step could be a mutual recognition agreement (MRA) for conformity assessment. This would mean that each party’s accredited standards agencies would be empowered to certify the conformity of their exporters’ products with standards required by the importing state, without further testing or certification in the importing country. An MRA would thus significantly reduce the cost of non-tariff barriers. An example of this type of agreement is the one between the EU and the US that has been functioning effectively without the scrapping of tariffs in an FTA.

It would also in principle not only be possible, but more plausible to establish a stand-alone MRA between the EU and the EAEU earlier than as part of a wider ranging free trade agreement that also scraps tariffs. This is because under the rules of the WTO, member states cannot enter into a free trade agreement with non-member states. This specifically concerns the situation of Belarus as the only  non-WTO member state of the EAEU. However, this limitation under WTO rules does not apply to MRAs of the type mentioned.

An MRA could of course also be incorporated into a more ambitious FTA that scraps tariffs. There is however also the fundamental question of whether the EAEU and its member states would consider this to be in their interests.

So far, this has been very unclear. In Russia, one hears the argument that an FTA with the EU would be too imbalanced in favor of the EU. Indeed, most Russian exports to the EU, such as oil and gas, are already being traded without tariffs. It should be noted that the EAEU is currently negotiating a ‘non-preferential’ agreement with China, which means that tariffs would not be eliminated. While the slogan ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ has featured in many speeches, there is much more caution on both sides when the practicalities of a FTA are considered.

It would still be possible for an FTA between the EU and EAEU to be sensitive to the concerns of the EAEU by being ‘asymmetrical’–meaning that while the EU could scrap its tariffs immediately, the EAEU might do this over a transition period of several years. An example of this is the EU’s deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (DCFTA) with Ukraine, which sees some of the most sensitive sectors getting transitional delays of up to ten years.

These scenarios cannot go ahead for the time being for the reasons already stated above. However, the main point is that there are well-specified concepts available for a possible agreement to scrap tariffs and non-tariff barriers between the two parties. For the EU this would be attractive as an economic proposition. Whether this could see consensus among EAEU member states is however not so clear.  A very narrow cooperation agreement that does not include free trade would be of limited interest to the EU.


[1] Emerson M & Kofner J (2018). Technical Product Standards and Regulations in the EU and EAEU – Comparisons and Scope for Convergence. IIASA Report. Laxenburg, Austria

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Three IIASA papers on “Challenges and Opportunities of Economic Integration within a Wider European and Eurasian Space” will be presented in Moscow at the high-level conference “Prospects for a deeper EU – EAEU economic cooperation and perspectives for business” on 6 June. See event page.