Level Playing Field
When a country trades with the EU then these imports (to the EU) are in competition with domestic production by the EU’s own producers. This is acceptable to the EU provided there is a ‘level playing field’, i.e. the system is fair and everyone has the same constraints, for instance around workers’ rights, environmental protection, or animal welfare.
An example of unfairness, where there isn’t a level playing field might be seen in chicken. EU chicken producers are bound by animal welfare legislation which includes a specified maximum stocking rate for broiler chickens. The chicken produced in a non-EU country can potentially be produced much more cheaply if there isn’t a restriction on the stocking rate – they would have an unfair advantage.
Individual member states are all bound by the same EU standards, therefore there is clearly a level playing field between them so this isn’t an issue for members states trading with each other (though there can be challenges where individual members states choose voluntarily to have more restrictive rules than are mandated by the EU). However when a third country, i.e. a non-EU country wants access to the EU market* it’s necessary for them to demonstrate that they can deliver this level playing field.
*It’s important to recognise that this isn’t a requirement of the WTO – any country who meet the SPS standards who are willing to accept the potentially prohibitive external tariffs levied by the EU can trade with it regardless of the level playing field. Where it comes into play is when another country seeks a better deal, e.g. tariff free access. The EU wouldn’t want to make it easy for another country whose producers have an unfair advantage to compete with the EU producers.
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