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Strongholds of Liberalism? The Reaction of Regional Integration Institutions to the Pandemic Trade Crisis


Regional integration institutions play an important but ambiguous role in the liberal international system, especially when it comes to trade policy. The Covid-19 pandemic generated a trade crisis, which gave them an opportunity to expand their role in a liberal or illiberal direction. An analysis of the framing and policy measures of five key regional institutions in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia will demonstrate whether they were geared towards liberalisation and/or interventionism in early 2020. The European Union stood out for its strong collective action on trade, working out a new balance between interventionism and liberalism. Other institutions hinted at interventionism but did not take collective action. The trade response was overwhelmingly state-driven, and regional institutions outside Europe clearly have limited agency in the global trade system. While their behaviour is difficult to qualify ideologically, their framing supported liberal principles of international relations.
Keywords: regional integration; trade; liberalism; political economy; pandemic