November 2019 proved to be a challenging time for the WTO in terms of getting agreement on the budget for the organization for 2020. Normally, the budget is approved for a two year time period. At the November 12 Budget, Finance and Administration Committee [“BFA Committee”] meeting, the United States had questions on a number of topics including funding for the Appellate Body and its Secretariat with the result that the Director-General’s draft budget was not approved at that meeting. The Committee added another meeting to the agenda for November 27 in the hope of achieving resolution and agreement at the Committee level on the budget for 2020-2021.
Virtually none of the documents that are submitted to or generated by the BFA Committee are made public, nor is there a summary of meetings that is made available to the public. Thus, relatively little is public about events following the November 12 BFA Committee meeting. The Director-General is reported to have revised the budget proposal after consultations with the United States which appeared to leave the total budget for the WTO in tact but to have modified what could be used for the Appellate Body based on the reality of the number of Appellate Body [“AB”} members being reduced to 1 after December 10 which prevents the AB from handling new appeals after that date.
Press accounts suggest that the U.S. agreed to having just a few of the 13 pending appeals concluded with AB funds — specifically the two plain packaging of cigarette cases against Australia brought by Costa Rica and Honduras (DS435 and DS 441). In an earlier note, I had reviewed the likely challenges for the 13 pending appeals in light of when notices of appeal were filed and the possibility of one of the two AB members whose term expires on December 10 apparently not having expressed a willingness to continue to hear appeals past the end of his second term.
Reportedly, the U.S. has also insisted on funding for any arbitration under DSU Article 25 to be handled from the WTO Secretariat and be at the level and amount for panelists vs. Appellate Body members.
Finally, the U.S. has only agreed to funding for 2020 with 2021 to be dealt with next year.
At the meeting on November 27, press reports indicate that objections to the modified budget were raised by the EU, China, India and Turkey. on various grounds (e.g., different treatment for different pending disputes; contractual commitments to the remaining AB member for the remainder of the member’s term; view that it is not the role of the BFA Committee to resolve how pending appeals are handled) with no consensus at the end of the November 27 meeting. See, e.g., Washington Trade Daily, November 28, 2019 at 1-2.
No additional BFA Committee meeting has been added to the WTO list of remaining meetings in 2019. There are two informal heads of delegation meetings ahead of the December 9-11 General Council meeting. One was held on November 29 (informal General Council – heads of deletation) but has no report of what was discussed or whether the budget was being handled in ongoing negotiations with those raising concerns. The next informal heads of delegation meeting is scheduled for Friday, December 6 (TNC – heads of delegation) followed by the three day General Council meeting.
The General Council’s agenda is likely lengthy and will include annual reports from various committees and other entities but has not been made public at this point. However, some documents for review at the General Council are available publicly including the draft General Council Decision prepared by Amb. Walker of New Zealand which is an attempt to find a solution to problems with the dispute settlement system raised by the United States. As the U.S. has already indicated that the draft General Council Decision does not adequately address its concerns, it is not expected that the draft Decision will be adopted by the General Council after it has been presented and discussed.
December 18 is the last regularly scheduled Dispute Settlement Body meeting of the year, and will occur eight days after the last day the Appellate Body has a minimum of three Appellate Body members (assuming no resolution with the United States). Thus, no new appeals filed after December 10 can be heard by the Appellate Body until new members are agreed to.
Amb. Walker, who in addition to being the facilitator for the General Council’s consideration of the issue is the current Chairman of the Dispute Settlement Body, is understood to be working with Members to see if there is an approach to the pending appeals that can be approved. For the reasons reviewed in the Nov. 24 post, it is unlikely that most of the current appeals will be in a position to proceed if all three of the existing Appellate Body members don’t agree to continue to serve under Rule 15 of the AB’s procedures despite the terms for two of the three expiring on December 10. Amb. Walker will be hoping to have an agreed solution ahead of the December 18 DSB meeting. But the resolution on how pending appeals will be handled, if found, is presumably relevant to what the Members agree to for the 2020 budget. The December 18 DSB meeting is the last listed meeting of any WTO group for 2019. Indeed, December 23 – 31 are shown as non-working days for the WTO.
While it is hard to imagine that WTO Members won’t approve a modified budget for 2020 in the coming few weeks, it is likely to be a tense end to 2019 at the WTO with formal or informal additional meetings possible and with some Members having to consider how to handle pending appeals and all ongoing and future disputes.