Brusselsas a field: Rethinkingthe policy worldof EU GSP

The UACES Network |

UACES Scholarship Report by Antonio Salvador M. ALCAZARIII

Doctoral Candidate in Political Science, Central European University, Austria
Visiting Research Fellow, Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals, Spain


Often feted as ‘the crown jewel’ of its common commercial policy, the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) has, since the 1970s, unilaterally opened the EU marketspace to imports from so-called ‘developing’ and ‘least developed’ countries in the name of development. Against the backdrop of multilateral inertia and headwinds against unfettered trade, the EU GSP regime has increasingly become more normative and politicised beyond the issue of market access by subjecting target countries in the global South to new technologies of conditionality and control. Yet, little is written around the problematisation of the EU’s preferential trade policy in relation to those it considers to be ‘the most in need’, ‘vulnerable’, or in ‘situations of fragility’. In this context, I situate my PhD research within the belated encounter of EU trade policy studies with interpretivism. To this end, my work aims to understand the meaning-making and power relations behind the EU GSP, especially the Everything but Arms (EBA) regime, from the perspectives of policy elites engaged in (re)producing it.


As a UACES Scholar, I am grateful to have started doing fieldwork in Brussels this autumn, firstly, during the second half of October and, secondly, during the final two weeks of November. During this time, I co-generated original data by interviewing, either online or in-person, 30 policy elites involved in the highly niche ‘policy world’ of EU GSP. My interlocutors work for the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European External Action Service as well as European civil society groups, labour unions, business associations, and think tanks. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to research at the EC Historical Archives where I gathered a wealth of primary sources on the EU GSP from its inception in the 1960s until the 1990s. I am convinced that having achieved these two important research tasks, thanks to UACES’s support, provides a credible basis for honing my research project and carrying out further data generation efforts.


My limited time in Brussels, though fruitful, has brought to the fore at least two methodological challenges that prompt further reflection. First, the ephemeral and hybrid contours of my fieldwork raises questions as to what might be considered credibly ‘ethnographic’ in works that are invested in political/policy ethnography under a global apocalypse. Indeed, the idea of extended in-situ immersions is not only practically unfeasible today but also raises a whole raft of ethical dilemmas for the researcher and the host organisation. While I set out to arrange in-person interviews following strict covid-19 prevention measures, some conversations simply had to take place remotely out of respect for my interlocutors’ preferences or the Belgian government’s teleworking mandates. Despite ‘being’ in the field, some of my conversations with people in the field were necessarily remote yet by no means lacking in meaning. Second, reading Brussels as a field in political science intriguingly works against the received representations of the ‘field’ as the non-West and those ‘being’ in it to ‘produce’ knowledge as Western. For me, as a Philippine researcher, being in Brussels as a field means to defamiliarise and provincialise taken-for-granted presuppositions about the EU as a global trade power.