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Underlying the Sustainable Global Economic Law (SGEL) research project is the overall question:


How can global economic law and governance be changed in order to make the processes of globalisation more socially and environmentally sustainable, and more legitimate and effective at the same time?


Challenges of the 21st century

Pursuing this question, the SGEL research team will examine two of the main challenges of the 21st century – high levels of inequality and climate change.

Both are interrelated and require acute action beyond the nation state. No single state can tackle climate change on its own. Equally, high levels of inequality within and across countries require global responses. Their root causes lie to a great extent in the way the global economy is legally structured.

SGEL focuses on those two challenges in their inextricable connection. Climate change has a distributive impact as it affects peoples and groups differently, both locally and globally. Responses to climate change also tend to further raise issues of distribution (recently shown, for example, in the yellow vest protests, which were sparked by emission taxes on gas consumption).

Tackling climate change thus has to cope with current high levels of inequality of income, wealth and opportunities within and across countries. That inequality has come to threaten the social legitimacy of public decision-making and raises serious concerns of social justice. Responses to these challenges require legitimate and effective institutions at the European and Global level of governance.

Cutting through sub-disciplines

SGEL cuts through legal sub-disciplines to appreciate how the combination of International as well as European public and private law can be more effective in meeting the challenges of curbing inequality and climate change.

The most important laws are not to be found necessarily in the fields of environmental or social law, be they national or international, which often try to remedy some of the negative consequences of economic globalisation. Rather, they should be located in the structures of global economic law, that is, the cumulative interaction between private law, European economic law and international economic law.

Addressing root causes

While different legal instruments have been specifically dedicated to the aims of social and environmental sustainability, these instruments, however, often fail to appreciate the way in which law contributes to creating the existing problems. A more fundamental and hence ultimately more effective way of dealing with the identified challenges is to address their root causes.

Research on Sustainable Global Economic Law contributes directly to the Sectoral Plan’s aim of exploring the role of law in shaping processes of globalisation so that they better protect individuals and public interests, as the Sectoral Plan puts it. The present research first of all pursues the objectives of contributing to the understanding of how law can effectively react to the challenges that globalisation poses.

Research Design

In order to explain how law contributes to the particular challenges of social and environmental sustainability, and how it could effectively react to them, SGEL approaches its analysis from two angles:

Research Cluster 1

In research cluster 1, the overall question is considered from the perspective of some of the most important economic practices of globalisation, such as global value chains and multinational corporations, asking what role global economic law plays, and could play, with regard to the social and environmental sustainability of these economic practices.

Research Cluster 2

In research cluster 2, the starting point are European and Global governance institutions, exploring what role they have played, and could legitimately play, in the making of sustainable global economic law.

Innovative features of SGEL

SGEL research is innovative in four ways:

  • We develop the concept of global economic law, which accounts for cumulative and mutually re- enforcing effects and interactions between private law, European economic law and international economic law in the constitution of the global economy. We argue that global economic law creates the legal framework for economic globalisation - and will often be the place to look for the causes of growing inequality and environmental degradation as well as effective legal reaction.
  • We study the role of law in globalisation paying particular attention to the cumulative and mutually re-enforcing interactions among different layers of law and regulation. We thereby counter the often-surprising isolation of academic sub-disciplines, not only between European private, public, and international law, but even within sub-disciplines themselves such as among European and international environmental and economic law.
  • We see an important role for global economic law in fostering the mutually supporting interactions between social and environmental sustainability. While gains in income have shown to give rise to greater environmental awareness, more effective environmental action will only find sufficient support if it is also deemed socially just. Yet these synergies are not to be assumed, and need to be tailored carefully, both legally and politically.
  • Whereas other disciplines tend to take the law as a given, legal scholars are particularly well- suited to appreciate the law’s malleability and its specific normative effects. As a consequence, legal scholars are comparatively better equipped to tease out pathways for realistic economic changes through changes in existing laws.

Academic and Societal relevance

Within regulatory studies there is a large body of work on transnational regulatory processes that includes both public and private forms of regulation, which even focuses on both social and environmental issues, such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Transnational Legal Orderings (TLO).

Much of this scholarship is interdisciplinary, either mapping the transnational forms of ordering or analysing how to improve their effectiveness (CSR). In other words, these bodies of scholarship tend to take the structures created by law as a given.

Our research, by contrast, focuses precisely on the constitution of those legal structures of the economy – structures that make both TLO possible and CSR necessary. We offer a normative analysis of global economic law, addressing how it shapes and entrenches real-life processes that contribute to inequality and climate change.

We also develop constructive suggestions on how to intervene and change those structures in favour of social and environmental sustainability.

It is hard to overstate the societal relevance of the role that the law and institutions of governance have in creating rights and obligations, either entrenching unjust and unsustainable ordering and behaviour, or that open-up opportunities for reform and transformation. High levels of inequality and climate change are widely seen as two of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.

More specifically, research results will be directly relevant to the ongoing debate in the Netherlands and beyond about the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the reform of the international investment law regime.