Making sense of the legal and judicial architectures of regional trade agreements worldwide

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Regulation and Governance

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Department or Program


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comparative regionalism, courts, institutionalist theory, law, trade agreements


Regional trade agreements (RTAs) constitute one of the most important elements of the international economic order. Researchers have accordingly embarked on comparative analyses of their design. Yet one fundamental question remains unanswered: how have officials in different RTAs responded to the challenge of regulatory misalignments among the member states? In this article, I turn to 10 of the most established RTAs in the world and document three types of responses. Some RTAs rely on the principle of mutual recognition or references to existing international standards; the same agreements also rely on technical dispute resolution mechanisms. Other RTAs, by contrast, make use of extensive harmonization and permanent courts charged with interpreting law. Yet a third group exhibits a hybrid design. This heterogeneity in legislative and judicial design invites explanation. I show that there is a remarkable correspondence between the legal traditions of the member states (common vs. civil law) and the design of RTAs. This correspondence undermines the claims of world polity theorists about the nature of the international order, but is consistent with other strands of sociological institutionalism and certain elements of rationalist and neoliberal institutionalism. I conclude by reflecting on the implications of different RTA designs for the regulation of everyday life in the member states, the World Trade Organization as an international regulatory body, and national sovereignty and democracy.


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