On December 11, the WTO Appellate Body will be down to one member based on the current impasse created by the U.S. insistence that significant problems with the dispute settlement system be addressed before new Appellate Body members are added. Earlier posts have reviewed the impasse and underlying issues at some length.
On November 12, the U.S. reportedly blocked adoption of the 2020-2021 budget proposal from the WTO Director-General at the meeting of the Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration. There were a series of written questions about the budget received from Members ahead of the November 12 meeting, including a six page document entitled, “CBFA questions received from the United States relating to the coordination, governance and administrative responsibilities of the multi-donor voluntary contribution trust funds”. WT/BFA/INF/6, 7 November 2019. The written questions are not publicly available at the present time.
A version of the 2020-2021 Budget Proposal from the Director-General that is available publicly is from 10 September 2019 and is document WT/BFA/W/492 (38 pages). Pages 23-24 review the budget proposal for the Appellate Body and its Secretariat (Section 3.2). The proposal shows the budget for the Appellate Body Secretariat staff at 4.573 million Swiss Francs/year, Appellate Body Members Fees and other temporary assistance as 871,000 Swiss Francs/year, other resources as 136,000 Swiss Francs/year and contributions to special reserves as being 2.0 million Swiss Francs/year. In mid-November 2019, 1 Swiss Franc was worth $1.01.
Press reports on the WTO meeting indicate that the U.S. was opposed to the budget for various reasons, including the provision of funds for the Appellate Body (AB) and its Secretariat for 2020-21 because of the impasse which would render the AB dysfunctional (arguably meaning no funds would be required until the impasse is resolved).
The U.S. also raised questions as to where funds for arbitration under DSU Article 25 would come from, including whether funds would be diverted from the AB. The EU has concluded agreements entitled “Interim Appeal Arbitration Pursuant to Article 25 of the DSU” with Canada and separately with Norway. These agreements call for the use of former AB members to act as arbitrators (in groups of three the same as AB Divisions) and use of AB Secretariat staff for such arbitrations.
Concern was also expressed on what was done with AB funds from 2018 and presumably 2019 because of the reduced number of AB members. See, e.g., Washington Trade Daily, November 13, 2019, “US Blocks WTO Budget” at 1-2; Bloombergs, Bryce Baschuk, November 12, 2019, “U.S. Raises Prospect of Blocking Passage of WTO Budget”, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-12/u-2-is-said-to-raise-prospect-of-blocking-passage-of-wto-budget.
The U.S. intends to develop its concerns on budget matters in multiple fora within the WTO. For example, the U.S. has added an agenda item (no. 4) to the upcoming Dispute Settlement Body meeting on November 22, “4. Statement by the United States on systemic concerns regarding the compensation of Appellate Body members”. WTO/AIR/DSB/89, 12 November 2019.
One can envision a number of concerns that could be raised by the United States. For example, based on its concerns about former AB members continuing to handle disputes after their term has expired, the U.S. could raise concerns about any payments (fees and expenses, etc.) to such individuals. Similarly, the U.S. could raise concerns over the total compensation including expenses that go to AB members whose work is part time only, particularly if the overall level of expenditures per AB member exceeds what full time compensation is for judges at appeals courts or the Supreme Court.
It is not clear if the U.S. will use the agenda item at the DSB meeting to also question whether WTO Members can utilize Appellate Body resources and staff for DSU Article 25 arbitration work or whether that issue will be left for the budget discussion.
Based on the Budget Finance and Administration Committee meeting of this past week, the U.S. statement at the November 22 DSB meeting is likely to be a detailed review of its concerns on how AB and Secretariat funding has been handled. The U.S. statement will almost certainly see responses from many other Members defending the status quo. The conflict on the budget issue adds to the tension among the membership on the likely continued impasse on the AB vacancies and the imminent shut down of the AB for future appeals pending a resolution on the many concerns raised by the U.S. on the functioning of the dispute settlement system.
The current approved budget ends at the end of 2019. So achieving an approved budget in the remaining weeks of 2019 is critical to the continued functioning of the WTO. Whether the U.S. will block the budget, achieve some accommodation or simply approve the budget in the coming weeks creates the focus for WTO Members. There is a three day General Council meeting on December 9-11, and there is an assumption that the matter will be resolved by then, if it is to be resolved this year. What is certain is that the last weeks of 2019 will see increased tensions within the WTO and likely fireworks at formal meetings.