The United Kingdom has the presidency of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United States and United Kingdom, with European Union as a guest) in 2021. On March 31, trade ministers had a virtual meeting which included WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. On the U.K. G7 web page, the objectives of the Trade Track of the G7 during the UK Presidency is reviewed. See G7 Trade Ministers, https://www.g7uk.org/trade-ministers/
“The UK’s 2021 G7 Presidency will feature a dedicated Trade Track at the G7 for the first time, led by the Department for International Trade. The Trade Track will be an opportunity for the UK to work with our G7 partners to shape a bold global vision for economic recovery that sees us build back better together – greener, more prosperous, resilient, and fair.
“To do so, the Trade Track will focus on four priority areas:
“- WTO reform
“- trade and health
“- digital trade
“- trade and climate policy”
The Chair of the G7 Trade Track released a statement on March 31. The Chair in 2021 is the U.K. Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities, the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP. See G7 Trade Ministers’ Meeting – Chair’s Statement, https://www.g7uk.org/g7-trade-ministers-meeting-chairs-statement/. The statement is copied below.
G7 Trade Ministers’ Meeting – Chair’s Statement – G7 UK Presidency 2021
“Today, the G7 Trade Ministers held their first meeting under the inaugural G7 Trade Track. Trade Ministers underlined the vital role global trade has played in tackling the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, welcomed the contribution trade can make to a strong economic recovery, and emphasised the need to build back better. They reaffirmed the importance of the rules-based multilateral trading system and welcomed Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new WTO Director-General, to their meeting.
“The G7 Trade Track has a bold purpose – to make the case globally for free and fair trade. G7 Trade Ministers are convinced that when the world’s leading democratic trading nations unite behind a shared agenda to make the global trading system fairer, more sustainable, and responsive to the needs of our citizens, this is an agenda that partners across the world will be ready to share in and help shape.
“Free and Fair Trade
“G7 Trade Ministers support a global trading system that is free and fair and works for all countries and peoples. This year represents a clear inflection point for the world and the global economic architecture. G7 Trade Ministers recognised the importance of providing the leadership needed to respond to the challenges faced by the multilateral trading system. Trade Ministers expressed their determination to provide the sustained effort and momentum necessary to ensure progress is made in the reform of the WTO to help secure shared prosperity for all. Therefore, G7 Trade Ministers will use this year’s G7 to advance the agenda of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference and provide vital political momentum to the WTO reform debate. Trade Ministers will explore reforms that can enhance the WTO as a forum for negotiations, recognising the positive role that the plurilateral initiatives have played in engaging a broad spectrum of WTO members. G7 Trade Ministers also acknowledge that important work on transparency, special and differential treatment, and dispute settlement needs to be undertaken in the WTO.
“The multilateral trading system can be a force for good. It has increased competition and economic growth, helped raise living standards, and lifted millions out of poverty. It must serve the needs of all its members and provide the basis for free and fair trade. G7 Trade Ministers recognised that global trade should work for democratic and open-market systems and that these should not be undermined by unfair trade.
“Yet, not all of our citizens have felt the benefits of trade. Moreover, practices that distort markets and competition lead to decreased efficiency and reduced perceptions of fairness and trust in the system. Echoing the G7 Leaders’ Statement at Charlevoix in 2018, G7 Trade Ministers recalled the importance of fostering a truly level playing field. Trade Ministers will discuss the impact market-distorting practices, such as harmful industrial subsidies, including those causing excess capacity in some sectors, are having on our economies and chart a way to address these collectively.
“G7 Trade Ministers believe that the multilateral trading system is in need of reform to reflect changes in the global economy and environment. As the world transitions to net zero, Trade Ministers acknowledged the risk of carbon leakage to the environment and the potential ways of mitigating this. Acknowledging the role of trade in tackling the accelerating climate and biodiversity crisis, Trade Ministers recognised that 2021 will be a crucial year to drive international efforts to address climate change and protect nature, including at the UNFCCC COP26. Trade Ministers will therefore deepen discussions on the nexus between trade and climate and the environment with a focus on identifying opportunities for collaboration and facilitating sustainable supply chains. Additionally, G7 members are committed to reaching a meaningful conclusion in the WTO negotiations of fisheries subsidies – which have a clear impact on sustainability.
“Stressing that trade has to be at the service of citizens, G7 Trade Ministers underlined the importance of advancing women’s economic empowerment through trade, particularly to support the Covid-19 recovery. They shared the view that greater representation of women in trade as leaders, business owners, and fairly compensated workers will ultimately deliver more and better jobs and more growth in our economies. G7 Members will promote deepened studies and more cross-cutting analyses on trade policy and gender equality by international organisations, such as SheTrades Outlook. Recognising the progress that is being made on trade and gender equality at the WTO, Trade Ministers intend to use their next discussions to explore new opportunities to improve the evidence base to support women in trade and discuss their priorities in this area for the next WTO Ministerial Conference.
“G7 Trade Ministers also agreed to further consider the ways in which trade policy can develop to support trade in health products, and increased supply chain resilience, as we work to build back better from Covid-19. The scale and pace of the spread of the virus, and an uneven global recovery, are challenging all our economies. G7 Members also encourage cooperation among governments, manufacturers, and other industry players to identify policies which support ramped-up production and distribution of vaccines.
“G7 Trade Ministers recognised the importance of digital trade to growth, innovation, productivity, and prosperity. They recalled the immense opportunities that it offers to our people and our businesses, and they underlined the central role that it can play in the economic recovery from the pandemic. G7 Members are united in their support for open digital markets and their opposition to digital protectionism. As a group of market-based economies governed by the rule of law, they believe that digital markets should be competitive, transparent, and accessible to international trade and investment. They agree on the importance of data free flow with trust, safeguards for consumers and businesses, and digital trading systems that allow goods and services to move seamlessly across borders. G7 Trade Ministers resolve to promote digital trade worldwide and to pursue global governance that is fair and inclusive. They agreed to further develop a set of high-level principles during this Presidency that will guide the G7 approach to digital trade.
“Digital trade remains an important area for the creation of new rules at the WTO. The rules governing digital trade should be responsive to innovation and emerging technologies, so that businesses, consumers, and workers can harness their full potential. G7 Trade Ministers committed to redoubling their efforts to advance the Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce at the World Trade Organization. They aim to achieve substantial progress by the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.
“G7 Trade Ministers look forward to strengthening their dialogue and further advancing a shared agenda at their next meeting in May.”
The statement from the Chair was not surprising considering the composition of the G7 and the focus of the members on getting the pandemic under control, reviving economic and trade activities (“building back better), restoring relevance to the WTO by achieving positive developments at the 12th Ministerial Conference and pursuing WTO reform on a host of areas including updating rules to address distortions (e.g., industrial subsidies) not adequately addressed in current agreements, operation of special and differential treatment, transparency, and dispute settlement. Most G7 members also support the Joint Statement Initiatives on a range of topics, including digital trade, domestic services regulation, SMSEs, empowerment of women in trade and gender equality, and trade’s role in addressing the climate crisis.
While some G7 members have different views on specific issues, the opening G7 trade ministers meeting lays out a positive broad-based agenda for having trade help get the world through the pandemic, return to greater prosperity, and address longstanding challenges at the WTO both to relevance in the 21st century and to different economic systems rendering current rules only partially relevant.
Statements by several of the trade ministers who participated add some individual country focus. For example, USTR Amb. Katherine Tai participated in the meeting. A press release from USTR dated March 31 identifies the U.S. views. See USTR, Statement from USTR Spokesman Adam Hodge on Ambassador Katherine Tai’s Participation in the First G7 Trade Ministers Meeting, 03/31/2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/march/statement-ustr-spokesman-adam-hodge-ambassador-katherine-tais-participation-first-g7-trade-ministers
“WASHINGTON – United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today virtually participated in the G7 Trade
Ministers Meeting hosted by the United Kingdom and chaired by Secretary of State Liz Truss. Ministers were joined in
this meeting by WTO Director General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This was the first meeting of the G7 Trade Ministers.
Ambassador Tai and other G7 Ministers discussed the challenges facing the global trading system from non-market
forces and the need to work collectively to advance free and fair trade. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and the Ministers discussed
pathways to achieving meaningful outcomes for the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference scheduled later this year.
Ministers also discussed their plans for future work on digital trade, women’s economic empowerment, and climate
change objectives. Ambassador Tai emphasized the Biden-Harris Administration’s objective to ensure that trade policy
focuses on benefitting workers, in addition to businesses and consumers. The Ministers are united in their desire to
support policies that will facilitate a rapid end to the pandemic and recognize that trade can contribute to a strong and
Similarly, Canadian Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade Mary Ng participated in the G7 trade ministers meeting. The following press release was issued on March 31 by the Canadian government. See Government of Canada, Minister Ng participates in first G7 trade and investment ministers’ meeting, March 31, 2021, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2021/03/minister-ng-participates-in-first-g7-trade-and-investment-ministers-meeting.html
“As the Government of Canada continues to address the COVID-19 pandemic, collaborating with international partners is essential to fighting the virus and ensuring a sustainable and inclusive global economic recovery from the pandemic.
“Today, the Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade, participated in the first G7 trade and investment ministers’ meeting, which was hosted by the United Kingdom under its G7 presidency for 2021. The ministers agreed to pursue an ambitious G7 trade and investment agenda that responds to the challenges posed by the pandemic and to support an inclusive and sustainable recovery with the WTO at its core.
“Minister Ng welcomed the discussion with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new WTO director general, on the future of the WTO. The G7 ministers agreed to work together to advance concrete outcomes in advance of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in November.
“Pursuing trade and investment policies that support women and Indigenous and racialized communities is key to ensuring Canada’s economic recovery from COVID-19 is inclusive and meaningful. During a session on women’s economic empowerment, Minister Ng highlighted initiatives that Canada has undertaken to support women’s success in international trade. The Minister encouraged G7 members to participate in the implementation of the WTO trade and gender initiative and, as a specific example, encouraged member countries to use the SheTrades Outlook, an interactive policy tool that helps governments put in place policies to improve women’s participation in international trade.
“During the meeting, Minister Ng also emphasized the importance of digital trade and highlighted Canada’s work on a number of initiatives, such as the ongoing WTO negotiations on e-commerce.
“Minister Ng reiterated Canada’s support for the United Kingdom-led G7 work plan to enhance the capacity of the trading system to respond to public health emergencies. Ministers discussed the Ottawa Group’s Trade and Health Initiative, which seeks to strengthen the resilience of global supply chains and facilitate trade in essential medical supplies and vaccines.
“The trade ministers acknowledged the impacts of unfair trade practices on their economies and agreed to work together to address them. Recognizing the important role that trade has in tackling climate change and ensuring a sustainable environment, the ministers agreed to continue their efforts to take action on climate change through initiatives such as the WTO trade and environment sustainability initiative.”
The Canadian press release also provided a quote from Minister Ng:
“’Canada continues to work closely with our international partners to support Canadian businesses, workers and communities as we fight the pandemic and support an inclusive, sustainable economic recovery through rules-based international trade that works for everyone. We will make sure that the interests of Canadians across the country are at the forefront of our discussions as we work toward ensuring a strong, sustainable, and inclusive economic recovery.’
“- Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade”
The press reported reactions within China to the G7 trade ministers meeting with a focus on G7 concerns with addressing reforms to industrial subsidies. See, e.g., South China Morning Post, G7 pressure on China over subsidies ‘doomed to fail’ even as Biden administration gathers coalition, 1 April 2021, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3128006/g7-pressure-china-over-subsidies-doomed-fail-even-biden (“Trade ministers from the Group of 7 (G7) – the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Italy and Japan – on Wednesday pledged collective action against ‘harmful industrial subsidies’ without naming China directly. China responded by saying it ‘won’t accept any accusation’ of its trade practice as it ‘has always honoured its commitments since it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the end of 2001.”).
The G7 is a potentially important grouping, particularly to articulate a vision for the future of the multilateral trading system. While the changes in global trade over the last quarter of a century ensure more voices need to be considered than those in the G7 (or those aligned with them), there is no forward movement without them.
The WTO, if a static organization, will continue its slide into irrelevance. The organization suffers a myriad of structural problems which have reduced the effectiveness of all of its core functions. There is a lack of common purpose among the WTO Members. Its rules reflect the world of the 1980s with no significant update in the rules since then.
The pressing global challenges flowing from the pandemic, from climate change and changing technology need a World Trade Organization that is up to date, nimble and driven by an agreed vision to promote sustainable development and greater equitable participation and benefits.
The initial articulation of G7 objectives from trade ministers is a step in the right direction. Time will tell whether the G7 can internally agree on the details of a trade agenda, can translate that into support among a large group of WTO Members and lead to meaningful agreements and reform. The opposition to meaningful reform from China and others within the WTO and the consensus principle of decision making renders it highly unlikely that the WTO will prove up to the needs of the moment. But efforts of the G7 and other groups is critical if a global trading system is to survive. One can only hope for success from the G7 efforts.