Ideas matter in politics, but, sadly, this is a point that has often been missed in the study of EU trade policy. Ideas may influence what actors think should be the objectives of trade policy or be used strategically to justify a certain policy course to convince (or coerce) otherwise critical actors. We analyse this dual role of ideas in EU trade policy from the completion of the European Single Market Programme (1992) to the recent negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). We argue that what could be called the ‘free trade paradigm’ has been consistently dominant over this period in shaping the policy and pronouncements of the European Commission officials responsible for external trade. However, ideas from other paradigms have been also been attached to this central ideational thread at various points in order to respond to increasing criticism of ‘free trade’.