On Monday, Novemer 23, Canada hosted a virtual meeting of the Ottawa Group on WTO reform. The Group includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland. Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided comments and urged the Members to “translate their statements about reforms to global trade rules into formal proposals and concrete requests at the WTO.” WTO, 23 November 2020, DDG Wolff calls on Ottawa Group to table formal reform proposals at WTO, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_23nov20_e.htm. DDG Wolff provided seven options for the consideration of the Ottawa Group on WTO reform, the first four of which used trade and health as one example.
“First, an observation: the game must be in play for key players to conclude that they have to join. If negotiations are not under way, there may be a substantial delay in attracting participation.
“Declarations, such as on trade and health, should be turned into formal proposals as soon as possible and should be embraced by all WTO members.
“And if some Members won’t come along or seek to delay — a joint initiative is a practical way to proceed and could then be launched as a priority. The time of testing should not be so long as to make a response to the pandemic arrive too late to be responsive to the current crisis.
“Second, Members can ask the WTO Secretariat for and receive support for evaluations of aspects of WTO reform. For example, on trade and health, Members can —
“Request the Secretariat to upgrade its COVID-19-related trade monitoring activities to collect and publish the best information available, not relying solely on notifications and verification. (This would be a more comprehensive and in-depth activity than that which takes place at present, which in itself was an upgrade from pre-COVID monitoring.)
“Request the Secretariat to work with the WHO, relevant UN agencies and other stakeholders, to highlight trade issues affecting vaccine production and availability, and to propose ways to eliminate obstacles. (This would go beyond existing activities and result in proposals put to the WTO Member- ship).
“Third, Members can
“Propose that the Director General convene a small, representative, ambassador-level group of Friends of Trade and Health to identify how the trading system has performed during the pandemic and to issue preliminary conclusions and recommendations for useful changes in approach within a short, defined timeline.
“Propose that the WTO Secretariat embark now upon the necessary supporting work without delay.
“Propose that the Director General constitute other ‘Friends’ groups to advance consideration of institutional reform and other issues of current importance, and providing possible solutions, such as with respect to the relationship to current and future WTO Agreements of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the disciplining of fossil fuel subsidies, addressing border adjustments likely with the adoption of carbon taxes, assessing the impact on markets of subsidies and other state interventions, employing trade to reduce income inequality, making the WTO more effective for economic development within and among Member economies, improving the trading system with respect to women in trade, providing WTO support for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, and more generally strategic foresight.
“G20 Members clearly want to enhance preparedness for future pandemics and other crises. Flexible groups with appropriate balance but able to be nimble and responsive are one way to supplement but not supplant the work of committees and joint statement initiatives (JSIs).
‘Propose that an ad hoc horizontal mechanism be created promptly in the event of crises to address — in real time — trade measures that are of concern. The mechanism, similar to trade policy reviews, but not limited to any single WTO Member’s measures, trade restrictive and trade liberalizing, should be constituted immediately for the current pandemic and economic recovery measures.
“Fourth, Members can
“Propose that the signatories of the Pharmaceutical Agreement providing for duty-free trade be updated (last done in 2010), that major nonsigna- tories join and that essential medical supplies be added to the coverage.
“Propose that the signatories of the Information Technology Agreement review and update its coverage, including adding medical equipment.
“Propose that negotiations on the Environmental Goods Agreement re-start in earnest now, with the addition of services.”
The Ottawa Group agreed to put forward a communication seeking action by WTO Members. Each of Canada and the EU (and likely other members) put out press releases. See, e.g., Government of Canada, November 23, 2020, Minister Ng hosts successful ministerial meeting of the Ottawa Group on WTO reform, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2020/11/minister-ng-hosts-successful-ministerial-meeting-of-the-ottawa-group-on-wto-reform.html; European Commission, Directorate-General for Trade, 23 November 2020, Ottawa Group proposes a global Trade and Health Initiative, https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/press/index.cfm?id=2215&title=Ottawa-Group-proposes-a-global-Trade-and-Health-Initiative.
The Canadian press release states in part, “As countries face a rise in COVID-19 cases, it is essential that governments minimize disruptions to trade flows in essential medical supplies. Today, members of the Ottawa Group took important steps toward a proposed WTO Trade and Health Initiative, which identifies short-term actions to strenghten supply chains and ensure the free flow of medicines and medical supplies.”
Similarly the European Commission press release stated that –
“Today the Ottawa Group, a group of 13 like-minded World Trade Organisation (WTO) partners including the EU, agreed today on an initiative, calling on the WTO members to increase their cooperation and work toward enhanced global rules to facilitate trade in essential medical goods. The agreement took place as an outcome of the Ottawa Group Ministerial meeting, hosted virtually by Minister Mary Ng of Canada.
“The Ottawa Group members called for immediate actions in response to the coronavirus crisis such as exercising a restraint in using any export restrictions, implementing trade-facilitating measures in the area of customs and services, as well as improving transparency.
“They also called for further cooperation amongst members, and between the WTO and other international organisations.
“The group also encourages WTO members to refrain from imposing tariffs on essential medical goods during the crisis. Such actions are intended to strengthen the resilience of supply chains and contribute to an effective response to a public health emergency. They can serve as a basis for future permanent commitments on trade in essential medical goods.
“Commission Executive Vice President and Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis said: ‘We are proud to promote this trade and health initiative. It aims to encourage stronger global cooperation at WTO level, by facilitating trade in healthcare products. This is critical in the current global health crisis and will also help us in future. But the Ottawa Group trade and health initiative is just the first step. Going forward, the EU will work to promote resilient global healthcare systems, as well as accessible and affordable healthcare products universally.’
“The communication will now be submitted later this week to the WTO secretariat, before being presented to the WTO General Council for discussion. It will be used to prepare the 12th Ministerial Conference of the WTO, due to be held in 2021.”
That same day, November 23, the Ottawa Group submitted to the WTO a communication entitled “COVID-19 and beyond: Trade and Health”. WT/GC/223 (24 November 2020). The document is embedded below.223
The communication is ten paragraphs plus an Annex which is described as “Draft Elements of a ‘Trade and Health’ Initiative”. The communication reviews the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and invites “all WTO Members to start working on a Trade and Health Initiative” referencing the Annex. Paragraph 6 of the communication summarizes the specific actions being proposed.
“6. With this objective in mind, we call on WTO Members to make their utmost efforts to prevent further disruptions in the supply chains of essential medical goods. As set out in the Annex to this Communication, we propose specific actions relating to export restrictions, trade facilitation,
technical regulations, tariffs, transparency and review, and call for the WTO to enhance its cooperation with other relevant international organizations, such as WHO, WCO, OECD as well as G20, given the context of the on-going evaluations of the global response to COVID-19. These proposed actions are not intended to be prescriptive and do not cover the universe of possible
measures that could support trade in essential medical goods. Rather, they reflect emerging best practices and should provide sufficient flexibility to be adapted to differing national circumstances.”
The Ottawa Group is hoping to get the support of all Members on a joint statement early in 2021 on a Trade and Health Initiative which could serve as a starting point for negotiations for new WTO commitments at the 12th Ministerial Conference in the summer of 2021 in Kazakhstan.
On export restrictions, the Annex calls for greater oversight of such restrictions without eliminating them outright.
On customs, services and technical regulations, the Annex calls for Members to share information and experiences on best practices in trade facilitation during a crisis (customs procedures, services (including freight, logistics, distribution and transport)) and on standards and technical requirements looking towards regulatory alignment.
On tariffs, the Annex calls on Members to “make best endeavours to temporarily remove or reduce tariffs on goods that are considered essential to fighting COVID-19 pandemic”.
On transparency and review, the Annex calls on Members to enhance transparency during the pandemic with the aim of identifying supply chain disruptions and avoiding such disruptions.
On the topic of cooperation of the WTO with other organizations, the Annex both encourages the WTO Secretariat to continue it outreach on measures related to COVID-19 and the studies developed by the Secretariat with a focus “on the causes and effects of the disruptions in the supply chains of essential goods and drawing on research of other international organizations.” The WTO Director-General is also encouraged to “intensify cooperation” with other organizations (including the G20) to improve “the analytical capacity of Members to monitor market developments in trade and production of essential medical goods.”
Finally, the Annex asks Members to review the effectiveness of the identified elements at the 12th Ministerial Conference “with a view to adopting possible commitments regarding trade in essential medical goods.”
There have been many communications put forward by different groups of Members at the WTO in the last eight months on actions that would make sense in terms of limiting export restraints on medical goods or avoiding such restraints on agricultural goods, about the need for effective trade facilitation measures to reduce barriers to movement of medical goods, and on other topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ottawa Group’s communication from Monday is an effort to come up with an early possible deliverable that could garner broad WTO Member support. As a result it seeks a joint statement with agreement on the statement for early 2021. The Group also provides five draft proposals for such a joint statement. The proposals don’t eliminate existing flexibility (e.g., export restraints) but try to tighten disciplines via increased transparency. The proposals encourage development of best practices on a range of trade facilitation and regulatory alignment issues. The proposals also encourage what is obviously in most Members self-interest — reducing or eliminating tariffs on medical goods during the pandemic. The proposals also call on Members to do a better job on transparency on measure taken during the pandemic with a focus on identifying disruptions to supply chains and addressing the same in short order. Finally, while the WTO already cooperates with other organizations, the proposals point to specific areas where enhanced cooperation would be helpful.
In an organization where Members have a low level of trust in each other, a joint statement on the need for a Trade and Health Initiative such as proposed by the Ottawa Group is probably all that can be achieved in the short term. Something along the lines outlined in the Annex would indeed be a confidence builder if achieved early in 2021. The ability to review developments at the 12th Ministerial and start negotiations on trade in essential medical goods at that time will also be important if accomplished. The more ambitious options presented by DDG Wolff should be considered but realistically are unlikely to either happen or get started ahead of the 12th Ministerial.
Let’s hope that the WTO membership can come together to support the Ottawa Group proposal. The EC has indicated that the Communication will be taken up at the December General Council meeting. That will be an early opportunity to see if there is likely to broad support for the initiative.