electronic commerce and digital trade

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s first week on the job starts with a two day General Council meeting

While the WTO’s General Council, in special session, appointed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the next Director-General on February 15, 2021, her term starts on Monday, March 1. The challenges facing the WTO membership and the incoming Director-General are many and complex. At the same time, there is a lot of useful work that is done within the WTO including efforts of non-members to join the WTO (accessions).

In speaking to an informal Trade Negotiations Committee and Heads of Delegation meeting on February 25, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff spoke in part on “The Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Era”. See WTO, DDG Wolff calls on members to work with new Director-General to reform WTO, 25 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_25feb21_e.htm. Part of the section of his statement on the new DG’s era is copied below.

“The Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Era

“The landmark event of the last six months was the appointment of the new Director-General ten days ago after what turned out to be a lengthy process.  91 member delegations spoke last week to congratulate the new Director-General. The DDGs and the Secretariat join you in welcoming Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment with great enthusiasm.

“Of course, member enthusiasm, optimism and hope need to be translated into concrete action.  

“There is much that needs to be done at this critical juncture for the WTO. World trade must contribute to a more effective pandemic response as well as a strong and sustainable economic recovery. Climate issues are demanding more urgent attention. WTO reform is overdue, having been called for repeatedly by you, by your ministers and by many heads of government. 

“The challenges are many but so are the opportunities. Dr Ngozi’s remarks at the Special General Council meeting last Monday, subsequently circulated to delegations in document JOB/GC/250, presented a worthy and ambitious agenda for the members of this organization.

“What did she say?

“To act with a sense of urgency to assist in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic through the nexus of trade and public health:

“First, by playing a more forceful role in exercising the WTO’s monitoring function. Part of this would involve encouraging members to minimise or remove export restrictions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment. WTO monitoring suggests that as of yesterday, 59 members and 7 observers still had pandemic-related export restrictions or licensing requirements in place, mostly for personal protective equipment, disinfectants and to a lesser extent, for medicines and food. This represents a significant level of rollback compared to the 81 members and 10 observers that had implemented such measures over the past year. A welcome development — but there is much room to improve this record.  

“And second, by broadening access to new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics by facilitating technology transfer within the framework of multilateral rules.

“Beyond these immediate responses to the pandemic, Dr Ngozi set out a number of other, also vitally important, challenges:

“To swiftly conclude the fisheries subsidies negotiations, and thus pass a key test of the WTO’s multilateral credibility while contributing to the sustainability of the world’s oceans.

“To build on the new energy in the multilateral trading system from the joint statement initiatives attracting greater support and interest, including from developing countries.

“To address more broadly the nexus between trade and climate change, using trade to create a green and circular economy, to reactivate and broaden negotiations on environmental goods and services, to take the initiative to address the issue of carbon border adjustments as they may affect trade.

“To level the playing field in agricultural trade though improving market access and dealing with trade distorting domestic support, exempting from export restrictions World Food Programme humanitarian purchases.

“To strengthen disciplines on industrial subsidies, including support for state-owned enterprises. 

“To defuse the divisions over Special and Differential Treatment (SDT).

“And to develop a work programme for restoring two-tier dispute resolution, to be agreed no later than MC12.

“I sense from my discussions with members that you chose this leader, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, because she has shown herself during her career to be fearless in the face of daunting challenges — and is experienced in knowing how to work with others to make progress toward solutions. 

“Each of the challenges the WTO faces, I am sure, can be met and overcome.  Echoing Dr Ngozi’s words, the trading system that we inherited, now only three-quarters of a century old, is about people.  This is inscribed in the opening section of the Marrakech agreement: ‘to raise living standards, ensure full employment, increase incomes, expand the production of and trade in goods and services, and seek the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development.”’

DDG Wolff’s summation correctly lays out many of the issues needing to be addressed by the WTO membership. The vast majority of the issues are highly controversial among at least some Members.

The first major order of business is a two day General Council meeting on March 1-2 which has several agenda items that lay out controversies on important potential deliverables by the WTO in 2021. The agenda for the two day meeting contains sixteen items. See WT/GC/W/820 (26 February 2021) embedded below.

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General Council meetings deal with updates on ongoing work at the WTO and address issues teed up by particular Members for consideration at the meeting. This post does not take up all agenda items but highlights a few of possible interest. Because DDG Wolff’s statement on February 25 reviews many of the activities of the WTO in the last six months which shows some of the positive developments, the full statement is embedded below.

WTO-_-2021-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff-calls-on-members-to-work-with-new-Director-General-to-reform-WTO

The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference

Agenda item 4 deals with the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference. It is expected that there will be a decision on the timing and location of the twelfth Ministerial Conference at the General Council session on Monday-Tuesday. The 12th MC was postponed from June 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the continued challenges from the pandemic the likely date will be the end of 2021. Kazakhstan which had offered to host the conference in 2020 and again in the summer of 2021 has recently indicated a willingness to host in December of this year as well. The ministerial had originally been scheduled for June because of challenging weather conditions in Kazakhstan in December. See TWELFTH SESSION OF THE MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE, COMMUNICATION FROM KAZAKHSTAN, 8 February 2021, WT/GC/229 (24 February 2021)(embedded below).

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Report on WTO Accessions

Deputy Director-General Wolff will provide a statement on the annual report on WTO accessions. The report is WTO ACCESSIONS, 2020 ANNUAL REPORT BY THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL, WT/ACC/38, WT/GC/228 (18 February 2021). Activity on accessions was challenged by the pandemic and inability to travel/hold in person meetings. More technical assistance and virtual meetings were held. Accessions are important for acceding governments in terms of promoting reforms at home and obtaining increased certainty in their international trade relations. Accessions are also an important benefit of membership for existing Members as acceding Members reduce tariffs and various non-tariff barriers to gain accession. The first eight paragraphs of the report provide an overview of activities in 2020 and are copied below.

Overview of activities in 2020

“1. 2020 was an unprecedented year in recent history due the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and its consequences which have touched upon every single aspect of our lives in every corner of the world. It was a challenging year for the WTO, not least because the pandemic disrupted its core activities, especially during the first half of the year, and it also disrupted the international trade of Members, except for supplies of essential goods critical to combatting the health crisis as trade in these goods expanded dramatically. The difficulties and challenges arising from the pandemic were particularly pronounced in acceding governments due to the uncertainties of being outside of the multilateral trading system. In fact, the desire and urgency to be part of the WTO was never felt stronger than in the pandemic year. This was reflected in the level of accession activities in 2020, which was sustained vis-à-vis previous years, with a significant increase in technical assistance and outreach activities.

“2. The year for accessions started with the establishment of a new Working Party for the accession of Curaçao, a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (WTO Member), following its application for an independent membership as a separate customs territory pursuant to Article XII of the Marrakesh Agreement. This constituted the 59th request by a state or separate customs territory for membership since the establishment of the Organization in 1995. In July, Turkmenistan was granted observer status in the WTO, with the understanding that it would apply for accession no later than in five years. This brought the total number of observer governments with the intention to accede to the WTO to 24, an increase by five since 2016 when Afghanistan and Liberia became the Organization’s most recent Members. The continuing interest to become part of the multilateral trading system is a testament to the attraction and relevance of its values and principles for all economies, regardless of their size or level of development.

“3. The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly hampered or delayed the technical work by acceding governments, Members and the Secretariat to prepare for, engage in and follow up on Working Party meetings. However, thanks to the firm commitment of the acceding governments to advance their work, four Working Parties met, including through the use of virtual platforms that connected the acceding governments which were unable to travel to Geneva. One acceding government had to cancel its already scheduled meeting due to the suspension of all WTO meetings in March. Out of the four accession Working Party meetings held in 2020, three were on LDC accessions (Ethiopia, Comoros and Timor-Leste). In two cases – the Working Parties of Ethiopia and Uzbekistan – this also represented the formal resumption of accession processes after several years of inactivity (8 and 15 years, respectively), signalling their desire to use WTO membership negotiations to drive domestic economic reforms, which have broader implications in the regions where they are located.

“4. When the pandemic halted planned missions, technical assistance, and outreach activities which required air travel, the Secretariat rapidly shifted the mode of operation to virtual format and took advantage of the opportunities provided thereby. In addition to the formal accession Working Party meetings which took place via Interprefy, the Accessions Division organised virtual technical meetings and briefing sessions with acceding governments, Working Party Chairpersons and partners in support of accessions. Moreover, the Division delivered a number of technical assistance, training and outreach activities in response to articulated needs of acceding governments, using various virtual platforms, such as MS Teams, Zoom and WebEx. In fact, the number of activities delivered by the Division and of participants who attended or were trained in 2020 exceeded considerably the numbers in previous years.

“5. One of the novel outreach programs developed in 2020 was two week-long activities which consisted of a series of webinars combining lectures, training and panel discussions. The first Accessions Week was organised from 29 June to 3 July, and the first edition of the Trade for Peace Week took place from 30 November to 4 December. These virtual events brought together a large number of resource persons and panellists from around the world and reached out to a larger number of participants, in a highly cost-effective manner, in comparison with traditional in-person activities. While the full values and benefits of in-person interaction cannot be replaced or replicated, the Accessions Week enabled the Secretariat to remain engaged with acceding governments and Members, experts and partners, beyond Geneva and around the world. The Trade for Peace Week provided an effective networking platform to expand the WTO’s partnership with the peace and humanitarian communities in support of fragile and conflict affected (FCA) countries in accession.

“6. The importance of collaboration and cooperation with partners was never felt more strongly than in 2020. The Secretariat made concerted efforts to enhance and expand the “Trade for Peace through WTO Accession” Initiative to support FCA countries in accession and those recently acceded to the WTO. In 2020, nine acceding governments were identified as being in a FCA situation according to the World Bank’s classification1, while conflicts emerged or resurged in some others. The pandemic hit hardest countries which had already been suffering from years of conflict, political crises, drought and other natural disasters, compounded by declines of the price of oil and other commodities. Nonetheless, some FCA acceding LDCs showed remarkable resilience in sustaining their engagement in accession. The Working Party on the Accession of the Union of Comoros resumed its work with determination to finalise the process as soon as possible. The Working Party on the Accession of Timor-Leste activated the Working Party by holding its first meeting nearly four years after its establishment, despite various challenges faced on the domestic front. Moreover, Somalia submitted its Memorandum on the Foreign Trade Regime, the base document to start its accession engagement with Members. Furthermore, the Secretariat continued to provide support to the g7+ WTO Accessions Group, which was coordinated by Afghanistan.

“7. The year 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the WTO. The Secretariat used its annual flagship event, the China Round Table on WTO Accessions, to review the contributions made by accessions to the multilateral trading system since 1995. The event also provided an opportunity for an exchange of ideas to explore the future expansion of WTO membership towards universality, including through possible improvements in the accession process. The year also marked a significant anniversary milestone for five Article XII Members2 – Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Jordan and Oman which joined the WTO in 2000, the year with the largest number of new members to date. Other anniversary milestones included the fifth anniversaries of Membership of Kazakhstan and Seychelles and the fifteenth anniversary for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, membership anniversaries have become an important occasion to reflect on the benefits and values of being part of the Organization.

“8. Finally, the thematic focus of the 2020 Annual Report was on the complementarities and synergies in negotiating WTO membership and regional trade agreements. Almost all acceding governments are involved in regional integration initiatives in parallel with their efforts to achieve WTO membership. The highlight of the year was the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to which all African WTO applicants are signatories. The Report’s thematic section builds on the rich discussions held on the topic during the 2020 Regional Dialogues on WTO Accessions for Africa and for the Arab Region, as well as other meetings on Central Asia and Eurasia. It aims to explore key opportunities and challenges that may arise in a simultaneous pursuit of regional and global integration efforts and to provide a checklist of issues for trade negotiators to consider in maximising the benefits from the participation in multiple trade arrangements.”

The full report is embedded below.

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Waiver of TRIPS Obligations During COVID-19 Pandemic

The sixth agenda item involves the effort from India and South Africa with a number of other developing or least developed countries to obtain a waiver from most TRIPS obligations on medical goods needed for the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a very controversial issue with developed countries with pharmaceutical companies involved in the production of vaccines and other items opposing the waiver on the basis of existing flexibilities within the TRIPS Agreement and on the global efforts through the WHO, GAVI and CEPI to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries through COVAX with financial contributions from many countries, NGOs and others. See, e.g., February 19, 2021, COVAX’s efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines  to low- and middle income countries — additional momentum received from G-7 virtual meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/19/covaxs-efforts-to-distribute-covid-19-vaccines-to-low-and-middle-income-countries-additional-momentum-from-g-7-virtual-meeting/

The TRIPS Council received the proposal back in October but has been unable to provide a recommendation to the General Council. A meeting of the TRIPS Council earlier this month continued the lack of agreement. Thus, the agenda item will simply result in the item being continued on the General Council’s future agendas until resolved or dropped. See WTO, Members discuss TRIPS waiver request, exchange views on IP role amid a pandemic, 23 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/trip_23feb21_e.htm (” In this context and given the lack of consensus on the waiver request, members agreed to adopt an oral status report to be presented to the General Council at its next meeting on 1-2 March. The report indicates that the TRIPS Council has not yet completed its consideration of the waiver request and therefore will continue discussions and report back to the General Council.”); December 11, 2020, Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights meeting of December 10, 2020 – no resolution on proposed waiver of TRIPS obligations to address the pandemic, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/11/council-for-trade-related-aspects-of-intellectual-property-rights-meeting-of-december-10-2020-no-resolution-on-proposed-waiver-of-trips-obligations-to-address-the-pandemic/; December 6, 2020, Upcoming December 11th Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights meeting – reaction to proposed waiver from TRIPS obligations to address COVID-19, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/06/upcoming-december-11th-wto-council-for-trade-related-aspects-of-intellectual-property-rights-meeting-reaction-to-proposed-waiver-from-trips-obligations-to-address-covid-19/; November 2, 2020, India and South Africa seek waiver from WTO intellectual property obligations to add COVID-19 – issues presented, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/02/india-and-south-africa-seek-waiver-from-wto-intellectual-property-obligations-to-address-covid-19-issues-presented/.

Fisheries Subsidies negotiations — Draft Ministerial Decision

The WTO has been pursuing negotiations on fisheries subsidies to address sustainable fishing concerns since the end of 2001. Conclusion of the negotiations were supposed to take place in 2020 but WTO Members were unable to get the job completed in part because of disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. While completing the negotiations remains a key objective of Members and the incoming Director-General and such completion is needed to fulfill the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6, WTO Members continue to face a large number of challenging issues. See, e.g., WTO press release, WTO members hold February cluster of meetings for fisheries subsidies negotiations, 24 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_24feb21_e.htm; February 22, 2021, An early test for the incoming WTO Director-General — helping Members get the Fisheries Subsidies negotiations to a conclusion, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/22/an-early-test-for-the-incoming-wto-director-general-helping-members-get-the-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-to-a-conclusion/.

Agenda item 7 is entitled “Supporting the Conclusion of Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations for the Sustainability of the Ocean and Fishing Communities — Draft Ministerial Decision — Communication from Brazil (WT/GC/W/815. The draft Ministerial Decision is an effort by Brazil to highlight the critical aspect of the negotiations which is to address environmental sustainability and presumably reflects Brazil’s concerns with the efforts of so many Members to protect their subsidies versus ensuring sustainable fishing. The document is embedded below.

WTGCW815

An attack on Joint Statement Initiatives

As reviewed in the incoming Director-General’s statement on February 15 and the summary of her statement by DDG Wolff on February 25, an important aspect of ongoing work at the WTO is a number of Joint Statement Initiatives that were started at the end of the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, including on e-commerce/digital trade.

Agenda item 10 is a frontal attack on such initiatives by India and South Africa through their paper, “Legal Status of Joint Statement Initiatives and Their Negotiated Outcomes”, WT/GC/819. I had reviewed the submission in an earlier post. See February 20, 2021, Will India and South Africa (and others) prevent future relevance of the WTO?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/20/will-india-and-south-africa-and-others-prevent-future-relevance-of-the-wto/. The agenda item will like see many delegations take the floor to support the use of joint statement initiatives within the WTO or to oppose them. While there won’t be a resolution of the issue, the challenge to the process could significantly handicap some of the efforts envisioned by the incoming Director-General to help developing and least developed countries take advantage of the e-commerce/digital trade world and eventually participate in talks and/or in an agreement. WT/GC/W/819 is embedded below.

WTGCW819-1

Agenda item 8 is viewed as related to agenda item 10. India has been seeking to limit WTO consideration of e-commerce issues to the multilateral efforts over many years within the existing Councils and Committees of the WTO (but where limited progress has been made).

COVID-19 and possible future pandemics — addressing existing trade restrictions and improving the functioning of the WTO to better handle in the future

The incoming Director-General has as a high priority to work with Members to improve monitoring of export restraints on medical goods and agricultural goods during the pandemic and working with Members to see that the WTO helps Members recover and better handle any future pandemics. The Ottawa Group had put forward a trade and health initiative in November 2020. See COVID-19 AND BEYOND: TRADE AND HEALTH, WT/GC/223 (24 November 2020). The communication was made by Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland. The document contains an annex reviewing the types of actions Members could take to improve the response to the pandemic and improve conditions going forward. Included in the annex to the communication are sections on export restrictions; customs, services and technical regulations; tariffs; transparency and review; cooperation of the WTO with other organizations. Several paragraphs in the communication review the issue of possible export restrictions on vaccines and are copied below.

“9. We realize that the challenges related to the scarcity of essential medical goods, now alleviated to some extent by the response on the supply side, may be repeated at the moment of the development of a vaccine or new medical treatments. In this context, we welcome the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), a global pooled procurement mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines, managed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. This mechanism is critical in securing an equitable share of vaccines for all Members of the international community. As we strongly support the objective of this facility, we call on WTO Members to ensure that any export-restricting measures do not pose a barrier to the delivery of necessary supplies under the COVAX facility.

“10. We recognize the collaborative efforts of private and public stakeholders in the research and development of COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and treatments. We encourage the industry to take actions to ensure access at affordable prices to COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for vulnerable populations and support voluntary pooling and licensing of IP rights to accelerate the development of such diagnostics, treatments and vaccines and scaling up their production. We recognize the importance of the IP system in promoting R&D and innovation for access to effective treatments. We note that the flexibilities provided by the TRIPS Agreement and reaffirmed in the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health remain available to protect public health and to promote access to medicines for all.”

The full document is embedded below.

WTGC223

Canada will be providing an update on the initiative at the General Council meeting and will likely see many Members provide comments on the agenda item.

Agenda item 9 was added by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay reflecting concerns by them (and presumably many other trading partners) about actions taken by the European Union to exert control over exports of vaccines from the EU in light of EU concerns about its own access to vaccines from manufacturers. See CALL TO PREVENT EXPORT RESTRICTIONS ON COVID-19 VACCINES, WT/GC/818 (18 February 2021). The document is embedded below.

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Since the EU is one of the Members who has pushed the trade and health initiative, there is concern by some WTO Members that its actions on vaccines run counter to the initiative it is supporting. Presumably the EU will argue that its actions are consistent with its rights under the WTO and is consistent with the language laid out in paragraphs 9 and 10 above.

The two agenda items are likely to show the concerns of many Members on equitable access to medical goods during the pandemic and the reluctance of at least some Members to reduce their flexibilities under the existing WTO rights and obligations.

Conclusion

DDG Wolff indicated that Members selected the incoming Director-General because she is “fearless in the face of daunting challenges”. There is no shortage of daunting challenges facing the WTO and its new Director-General. A few have been reviewed above.

Some good news is that the EU and the United States are supportive of many of the priorities laid out by DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her February 15 statement to the Special Session of the General Council as seen in the recent EU revised trade policy and the opening statement of USTR nominee Katherine Tai at yesterday’s Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing See February 18, 2021, The European Commission’s 18 February 2021 Trade Policy Review paper and Annex — WTO reform and much more proposed, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/18/the-european-commissions-18-february-2021-trade-policy-review-paper-wto-reform-and-much-more-proposed/; February 25, 2021, U.S. Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/25/u-s-trade-representative-nominee-katherine-tai-confirmation-hearing-before-the-u-s-senate-finance-committee/.

The challenges the new Director-General and the WTO Members face will be made harder by the lack among Members of a common vision and agreed purpose of the WTO, by the current inability of the WTO system to address fundamentally different economic systems, by the structure of decision making, by the failure of obligations to be updated to match level of economic development and role in global trade and by the related issue of how special and differential treatment is used. These challenges have resulted in a negotiating function that is broken, in a dispute settlement system that has no checks on the reviewers for errors or failures to operate within the bounds of authority granted in the Dispute Settlement Understanding and in the underperformance of the monitoring and implementation function.

Hopefully, DG Okonjo-Iweala will develop a strong personal staff and group of DDGs to help her attempt the seemingly impossible — getting meaningful progress and reform from the 164 current WTO Members. See February 13, 2021, Leadership change at the WTO — with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s arrival next week, what support team and early changes in the role of the Secretariat could help WTO Members move forward?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/13/leadership-change-at-the-wto-with-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iwealas-arrival-next-week-what-support-team-and-early-changes-in-the-role-of-the-secretariat-could-help-wto-members-move-forward/

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will get her first reality check at the General Council meeting on March 1-2.


Will India and South Africa (and others) prevent future relevance of the WTO?

The WTO has struggled to remain relevant as global technology and trade issues evolve from where they were in the 1980s. Part of the challenge flows from the widely divergent interests of a growing membership (currently 164 countries) which coupled with the consensus principle for decision making means any Member can shut down or prevent progress. Part flows from the failure/inability to update commitments based on changing stages of economic development and share of global trade. Part flows from the increased importance of Members whose economic systems are not market-premised under rules which assume such a market orientation. Part flows from the effort of some to seek new rights through dispute settlement and by ineffective controls to prevent excesses by the panels and Appellate Body system adopted in 1994. Part flows from the crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change and the glacier pace of deliberations within the WTO.

All of these forces have led WTO Members to focus energies on bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements and to start a process of so-called Joint Statement Initiatives to let countries desiring to address new or uncovered issues do so.

With the WTO finally having appointed a new Director-General whose priorities include addressing longstanding issues, but also achieving progress on the Joint Statement Initiatives — including digital trade/e-commerce and others — and with the European Union’s 18 February trade policy paper and Annex dealing with WTO reform and indicating the importance of flexibility for bringing open plurilaterals into the WTO, India and South Africa have filed a communication for discussion at the March 1-2, 2021 General Council meeting challenging the “legal status of Joint Statement Initiatives and their negotiated outcomes”. See WT/GC/W/819, 19 February 2021. The Indian and South African paper is embedded below.

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The paper from India and South Africa raises interesting points about existing WTO provisions for modifications of existing agreements and for adding plurilateral agreements and other issues. But the real question for the WTO is whether updating of rules and coverage of technological change and global developments will happen within or outside of the WTO. No issue describes this better than digital trade. Existing WTO rules don’t really address digital trade which has become increasingly important for all countries. While the WTO has had digital trade on its radar since 1998, there has been no meaningful progress within the WTO on multilateral rules. See WTO, Electronic commerce, https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/ecom_e/ecom_e.htm. The Joint Statement Initiative on digital trade started in Buenos Aires in late 2017 is an effort by some WTO Members to develop rules for those willing to participate that address important issues affecting digital trade today. See WTO Ministerial Conference, New initiatives on electronic commerce, investment facilitation and MSMEs, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news17_e/minis_13dec17_e.htm; JOINT STATEMENT ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE,WT/MIN(17)/60, 13 December 2017, https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/SS/directdoc.aspx?filename=q:/WT/MIN17/60.pdf&Open=True. The JSI on e-commerce presently has 86 WTO Members participating in the negotiations and is making progress towards potential results as early as the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in late 2021. See, e.g., Joint Statement on E-Commerce, 18 December 2020, Coordinators of joint initiatives cite substantial progress in discussions, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/jsec_18dec20_e.htm. Embedded below is the 2017 Joint Statement Initiative, the December 2020 Joint Statement on E-Commerce and the December draft text.

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Conclusion

The paper from India and South Africa may reflect a desire to have an early discussion of what additional flexibilities are needed in the WTO to permit easier inclusion of plurilateral agreements within the WTO. The paper could also be an effort to add leverage to obtaining focus on issues of importance to India and South Africa. It could also be a signal that two Members who historically have had problems with many liberalization efforts are simply looking to lock the WTO down from timely reform and rule updates at least among the willing. If so, the WTO’s drift to irrelevance will continue and solutions outside of the WTO will become the main focus of global trade rules.

The WTO Informal Ministerial of January 29, 2021 — hope for progress at the WTO in 2021

Switzerland typically hosts an informal ministerial meeting of WTO trade ministers on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s January Davos event. This year both were handled remotely.

The informal ministerial was summarized in ten points by the Swiss Confederation President Guy Parmelin at the end of the event. President Parmelin’s statement is available here, https://www.newsd.admin.ch/newsd/message/attachments/65098.pdf, and is copied below.

Virtual Informal WTO Ministerial Gathering, 29 January 2021

Personal Concluding Remarks by the Chair, President of the Swiss Confederation and Head of the Federal Department for Economic Affairs, Education and Research, Guy Parmelin, Switzerland

“29 Ministers and high officials representing a broad spectrum of the WTO membership attended this year’s Informal World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Gathering in virtual format. In concluding and with warm thanks to all participants for their contributions, I would like to summarise the main points from our discussions as follows:

“• Ministers stressed the urgency of the swift appointment of a new WTO Director-General as well as the confirmation of the date and venue of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12).

“• Ministers reiterated their determination to maintain a credible multilateral trading system and to restore a climate of mutual trust.

“• Ministers expressed their concerns about the enormous social and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. They highlighted the relevance of trade and the role of the WTO in containing the pandemic and promoting recovery. Many Ministers underlined the importance of ensuring the development of as well as an equitable and affordable access to medical goods, including vaccines. They addressed ways and means to achieve these goals, including the implementation of measures facilitating trade, the role of intellectual property and transparency.

“• Ministers regretted that the negotiations on fisheries subsidies could not be completed in accordance with the end-2020 deadline foreseen in SDG 14.6. In light of the significance of this process for the sustainability of global fisheries, Ministers concurred that a comprehensive and effective agreement on fisheries subsidies should be concluded as soon as possible. Ministers agreed to step up efforts with a view to finding mutually acceptable solutions consistent with all the elements of the negotiating mandate.

“• Ministers highlighted the importance of restoring a fully functional WTO dispute settlement system, which is a key pillar of the rules-based multilateral trading system.

“• Many participants argued for further progress in agricultural trade policy reform at MC12 and asked for an outcome on domestic support and other issues. The issues of public stockholding and the special safeguard mechanism were highlighted by several Ministers.

“• Many Ministers called for tangible outcomes, by MC12, on the Joint Statement Initiatives. Inter alia finalizing the process on Services Domestic Regulation and making substantial progress on E-commerce and Investment Facilitation as well as on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment.

“• The need to reform the WTO was widely acknowledged. A number of Ministers insisted on advancing diverse issues related to the special and differential treatment of developing and least developed countries. Some participants proposed to adjust WTO rules to present-day economic and competitive conditions.

“• Several Ministers supported new initiatives launched in response to global challenges such as the structured discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability.

“• Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to engage in the preparations for MC12 in order to advance key issues.”


The participants at this year’s informal ministerial included officials from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chad (coordinator for LDC Group), Chile, China, Egypt, European Union, India, Indonesia, Jamaica (Coordinator ACP Group), Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea, Mauritius (Coordinator African Group), Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland (Chair), Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States and three officials with WTO roles — H.E. Mr. David Walker (New Zealand), WTO General Council Chair; H.E. Mr. Santiago Wills (Colombia), WTO Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules, H.E. Mr. Alan Wolff, WTO Deputy Director-General. The full list with titles is embedded below.

List-of-participants-at-virtual-informal-ministerial-1-29-2021-65099

The good news for the informal ministerial was the position taken by the United States representative who reportedly indicated that the United States was actively reviewing the issue of the next Director-General and was intent on actively working on WTO reform. See, e.g., Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Biden administration strikes ‘constructive’ tone in first word on WTO approach, January 29, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/biden-administration-strikes-%E2%80%98constructive%E2%80%99-tone-first-word-wto-approach; Politico, Biden administration joins call for ‘swift appointment’ of new WTO head, January 29, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/29/biden-world-trade-organization-463820. Under the Trump Administration, the United States had blocked the formation of consensus around Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala based on the U.S. view that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala did not have a sufficient trade background. See, e.g., January 26, 2021, Letter from variety of former U.S. officials to President Biden urges U.S. support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as next WTO Director General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/26/letter-from-variety-of-former-u-s-officials-to-president-biden-urges-u-s-support-for-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala-as-next-wto-director-general/. Hopefully, the current review of the issue by the Biden Administration, even ahead of President Biden’s trade team being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will result in the U.S. joining the support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, permitting the WTO to approve a next Director-General.

It was also reported that the United States, consistent with the Biden Administration’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, expressed interest in promoting recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and concluding an ambitious fisheries subsidies agreement. See Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Biden administration strikes ‘constructive’ tone in first word on WTO approach, January 29, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/biden-administration-strikes-%E2%80%98constructive%E2%80%99-tone-first-word-wto-approach. Fisheries subsidies negotiations have been going on for some twenty years, and many Members have remained more concerned with keeping their subsidies in place than agreeing to disciplines that would create conditions for sustainable fishing going forward. The Interest in the Biden Administration in working within the WTO on joint steps to promote recovery from the pandemic is different from the approach pursued by the Trump Administration which didn’t want to look at actions possible within the WTO (other than limits on export restraints on agricultural goods) while the world was dealing with the pandemic. The U.S. statement should mean more interest in exploring issues like those raised by the Ottawa Group. See November 27, 2020, The Ottawa Group’s November 23 communication and draft elements of a trade and health initiative, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/27/the-ottawa-groups-november-23-communication-and-draft-elements-of-a-trade-and-health-initiative/.

Other issues flagged in the Swiss President’s concluding remarks are issues of particular interest to some or many countries but not topics of clear agreement. For example, while it is likely that the United States will look for ways to resolve its concerns about longstanding problems in the WTO’s dispute settlement system, particularly around the Appellate Body, it is unlikely that there will be a swift resolution of the U.S. concerns, and hence there will likely be a continued impasse for at least much of 2021 on the return of a functioning two-stage dispute settlement system.

Similarly on domestic support in agriculture and other agriculture issues flagged, certain WTO Members have not supported further liberalization in agriculture while pushing for limits on domestic subsidies and rollback of liberalization commitments undertaken in the Uruguay Round. It is unlikely that there will be forward movement on these issues without greater balance in terms of tariff reductions on major agricultural products. Moreover, as noted in a recent post, other major distortions in agriculture that are not presently identified as domestic subsidies include widespread use of child and forced labor on many agricultural products. See January 25, 2021, Child labor and forced labor in cotton production — is there a current WTO mandate to identify and quantify the distortive effects?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/25/child-labor-and-forced-labor-in-cotton-production-is-there-a-current-wto-mandate-to-identify-and-quantify-the-distortive-effects/; January 24, 2021, Forced labor and child labor – a continued major distortion in international trade for some products, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/24/forced-labor-and-child-labor-a-continued-major-distortion-in-international-trade-for-some-products/. Such practices should be quantified and the level of potential distortion identified so WTO Members can decide how to address them in ongoing agriculture negotiations.

Progress is being made on Joint Statement Initiatives including e-commerce, services domestic regulation, investment facilitation and women’s empowerment. An open issue for these and topics in the sphere of trade and the environment (e.g., environmental goods agreement) is whether benefits provided by participants will be made available on an MFN basis or limited to participants, with the option of other Members to join in the future. See January 18, 2021, Revisiting the need for MFN treatment for sectoral agreements among the willing, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/18/revisiting-the-need-for-mfn-treatment-for-sectoral-agreements-among-the-willing/. For many Members liberalization could be speeded up if benefits in sectoral agreements go to those participating only while leaving the door open for other Members to join later when they see the value for them.

And on the important topic of WTO reform beyond the items listed above, there is little current agreement on how to deal with industrial subsidies and other practices that lead to massive global excess capacity, or on how to address access to special and differential treatment and many other areas of importance to some or many WTO Members.

Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided a statement during the virtual informal ministerial urging WTO Members to make 2021 a year of accomplishments. The WTO press release can be found here. WTO News, DDG Wolff urges WTO ministers to address the pandemic and make 2021 a year of action, 29 January 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/igo_29jan21_e.htm. DDG Wolff’s statement is copied below.

“My thanks to our Swiss hosts and to President Parmelin both for his remarks today and for his very thoughtful address on the occasion of the 25th anniversary celebration of the WTO last November.

“Ministers, you can make 2021 a year of substantial accomplishments at the WTO.

“There has already been a beginning.  In the first action of the year, Members accounting for most of the world’s agricultural exports committed to refrain from imposing export restrictions on purchases made by the World Food Program.

“The anticipated appointment of a new Director-General will bring needed leadership in moving toward concrete results.  But she can succeed only with your active engagement.

“I urge you not to wait for the Twelfth Ministerial Conference, delayed by the pandemic, to move negotiations forward to positive outcomes. 

“There is no reason why the twenty-year negotiation on fisheries subsidies cannot be concluded successfully — without a sacrifice of ambition — in the next few months.  Success hinges on Members’ willingness to accept a significant level of discipline on their own subsidies.  Political decisions and your active engagement will be required to bring about success.

“I urge you to address ‘trade and health’ forcefully and immediately.  Last year, trade made a vitally important contribution in supplying needed medical supplies to deal with COVID-19.  Proposals as to what more can be done must be deliberated now.  Cooperation on trade can accelerate access to vaccines.  There can be no higher priority.

“Consider how the WTO can further contribute to the economic recovery.  Members can take steps to ensure enhanced transparency, work to eliminate unnecessary barriers and agree that new restrictions will not be imposed.  Trade finance must be restored.  The WTO convened the major international financial organizations and banks to address this need in the aftermath of the financial crisis and it can do so now again.

“’Trade and climate’ must be on the WTO agenda.  Carbon border adjustment measures will likely result in conflicts unless Members engage in joint efforts to find mutually beneficial solutions.  The heightened interest of Members in a broad range of other environmental issues such as plastics pollution and the circular economy can be reflected in new agreements.   The WTO can be more visible as a steward of the planet by reviving and concluding the Environmental Goods Agreement

“The Joint Statement Initiatives on e-commerce, investment facilitation, and services domestic regulation can bear fruit this year, building on what was achieved with respect to small businesses last year.  In addition, more progress can be made on the economic empowerment of women through international trade.  

“Concerns over income inequality have been growing.  The WTO’s rules-based system needs to be seen not only among countries but also within countries, as responsive to the needs of workers, farmers and all who wish to engage in international trade.  But international trade rules cannot substitute for domestic policy actions to make growth more inclusive.  When large numbers of people are unhappy with how the economy is working for them, trade will often receive undeserved blame.  The WTO is about fairness.  Its work will never be done in pursuit of that objective, but further progress can be made this year.

“There can be an outcome on agriculture — at least a down-payment and a defined work program going forward.

“During 2021, the WTO can likely welcome new WTO Members, as it continues to move towards universal coverage.  Comoros and Bosnia-Herzegovina may be ready, and over a dozen others are making progress.

“Last but not least, ‘WTO reform’ can become a reality, with actions taken to —

“- facilitate rule-making with wide participation,

“- achieve heightened enforcement through binding dispute settlement in a manner agreed by all, and

“- provide a strong mandate for a Secretariat to deliver all needed support to Members and to achieving the mission of the WTO. 

“We should greet this year with optimism and re-dedication.  With your strong engagement, 2021 can be a year to remember for what is achieved.

“Thank you.”

A presentation from the WTO Secretariat to Ministers needs to be positive, forward looking, aspirational and inspirational. DDG Wolff’s statement yesterday provides all of that. The first item mentioned, the joint pledge from 79 WTO Members not to restrict agricultural exports to the UN World Food Programme for humanitarian purposes is a positive for the world but follows the December failure of the WTO General Council to agree to the same by all WTO Members. See January 23, 2021, WTO and the World Food Programme – action by 79 Members after a failed December effort at the General Council, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/01/23/wto-and-the-world-food-programme-action-by-79-members-after-a-failed-december-effort-at-the-general-council/.

The challenge for the WTO in 2021 will be whether Members can come together in fact to achieve many of the important opportunities and needs in front of the Membership. While the history of the WTO since 1995 and the major divisions among Members at the present time would strongly suggest that 2021 will not achieve many of the things that are needed and possible, hope springs eternal.

U.S. perspective

The Trump Administration did an excellent job of identifying problems with the operation of the WTO whether from the longstanding failures of the dispute settlement system, to the existential challenges to the viability of the WTO from major Members whose economies have not converged to a full market orientation, to the out-of-date rules around special and differential treatment to all who claim developing country status regardless of economic development of individual members, to the need for greater transparency in many areas, including importantly subsidies, to the failure of the WTO to update rules to address changing technology and trade issues.

The Biden Administration has indicated its intention to work within multilateral institutions, including the WTO. Early action by the United States on the Director-General selection issue could provide positive energy to WTO Members in the coming months. There are topics where success can be made in 2021 either multilaterally or plurilaterally. But a lot of what is needed for meaningful WTO reform will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the short term. Hopefully, the Biden team will stay the course to achieve reform that both returns the WTO playing field to the level agreed at the time of concluding the Uruguay Round, finds ways to deal with the massive distortions not presently covered by WTO rules, works with others to bring the WTO into the 21st century and addresses the critical issues for global prosperity and sustainable development.

The race to become the next WTO Director-General — where the candidates stand on important issues: fisheries subsidies and e-commerce/digital trade

[Updated on August 27 to incorporate comments by Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi of Moldova at a WITA webinar held on August 26.]

The eight candidates for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organization, in looking at what topics should be moved forward or completed in negotiations were uniformly in support of an early conclusion to the negotiations on fisheries subsidies and on updating the rule book by moving the plurilateral negotiations on e-commerce/digital trade forward to at least a draft document by the twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference in 2021.

Background on fisheries subsidies

Fisheries subsidies have been subject to negotiation within the WTO since the launch of the Doha Development Agenda in December 2001 with limited forward movement in recent years. With the world’s wild caught supply of fish under severe pressure from overfishing, curbing illegal fishing and overfishing through subsidy disciplines became part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 (Goal 14.6)(SDG). This led WTO Members at the eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires to commit to completing the negotiations on fisheries subsidies by the twelfth Ministerial Conference which was scheduled for early June 2020 to permit completion within the time frame laid out in the UN SDG. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown in Geneva and in many countries, the time frame for completing the fisheries subsidies has slipped, although in late June, the Chair of the Rules Negotiating Group released a draft consolidated text to permit Members to see if a final push to complete negotiations could be made possibly yet in 2020. I have reviewed the fisheries subsidies in a number of prior posts. See, e.g., June 29, 2020, Update on fisheries subsidies draft consolidated text from June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/29/update-on-fisheries-subsidies-draft-consolidated-text-from-june-25/; June 27, 2020, Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/27/chair-of-rules-negotiating-group-releases-draft-consolidated-fisheries-subsidies-text-at-informal-meeting-on-june-25/; January 13, 2020, Fisheries Subsidies – Will the WTO Members Reach Agreement Before June 2020? https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/01/13/fisheries-subsidies-will-the-wto-members-reach-agreement-before-june-2020/.

Background on electronic commerce/digit trade

The agenda for the Uruguay Round was established in 1986 with negotiations completed in 1993 and the agreements that created the WTO signed in 1994. At that time, there was little electronic commerce. The driver of world economic growth over the last twenty-five years has increasingly been the rapidly developing technology that permits large amounts of communication and business activity to occur electronically. Music, movies, television, books, magazines have largely gone digital. Consumer purchases of goods and services have increasingly been done digitally. During the COVID-19 pandemic much of the world has depended on electronic communications to buy groceries, handle some medical needs, eliminate in person meetings replaced by virtual meetings and much more.

While the WTO as early as the second Ministerial Conference in 1998 agreed to study issues surrounding electronic commerce to develop rules that might be necessary, the WTO’s efforts have struggled for more than twenty years with periodic agreement to continue the review and extend a moratorium on customs duties on electronic commerce. See, e.g., Work Programme on Electronic Commerce, adopted by the General Council on 25 September 1998, WT/L/274 (30 Sept. 1998); Work Programme on Electronic Commerce, Ministerial Decision of 13 December 2017, WT/Min(17)/65, WT/L/1032 (18 December 2017). These two documents are embedded below.

274

65

At the eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, WTO Members with an interest in particular issues issued Joint Statement Initiatives basically indicating that the group of listed Members were going to move forward developing potential rules on the subject matter of interest, keeping the process open to any Member wishing to participate. One of the Joint Statements was on Electronic Commerce. See JOINT STATEMENT ON ELECTRONIC COMMERCE, WT/MIN(17)/60 (13 December 2017). The statement is embedded below.

60

The JSI on e-commerce has been making good progress under the leadership of Australia, Japan and Singapore. A review of progress from the March 5 General Council meeting minutes is copied below (WT/GC/M/182 at 117):

“47. Australia (Joint Statement Initiative on Electronic Commerce)

“I will first provide a report on negotiations under the Joint Statement Initiative on Electronic Commerce on behalf of the co-convenors: Australia, Japan and Singapore.

“I will start with a short summary of the informal meeting of Ministers on the Ecommerce JSI held in Davos on 24 January.

“At this meeting, Ministers underscored the importance of this initiative both commercially and systemically for the WTO and affirmed their commitment to a high standard outcome, with the participation of as many WTO members as possible.

“Ministers welcomed the good progress achieved over the first year of negotiations, including the range of proposals received, the diversity and growing number of participants, and the strong levels of engagement in negotiating rounds.

“Ministers emphasized the need to keep working hard to ensure substantial progress by MC12 and agreed to develop a consolidated negotiating text by MC12 and a pathway for the future conclusion of the negotiations.

“The Philippines also announced it would join the JSI, bringing the number of signatories to 83, representing over 90% of global trade.

“Since our last report at the December HODS/TNC, we have held an organisational meeting, on 16 December, that set a work plan leading up to MC12.

“We also convened a negotiating round from 11-14 February, which covered electronic transactions, non-discrimination and liability, consumer protection, transparency, domestic regulation, cooperation and telecommunications. These negotiations were structured around revised streamlined texts drawn from proposals made by Members, and made further progress on streamlining text.

“Two more rounds are scheduled before MC12: 17-20 March and 28 April-1 May.

“We look forward to a continuation of the constructive engagement and momentum demonstrated in February with the aim of developing a consolidated negotiating text by MC12.

“The co-convenors continue to ensure this JSI is transparent and inclusive: meetings are open to all WTO Members; and all proposals and reports are available on the WTO’s web portal.”

The JSI group had hoped to have a consolidated draft text by the 12th Ministerial Conference in June this year before the Ministerial Conference was cancelled because of the pandemic. While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down progress for a few months, the joint convenors (Australia, Japan and Singapore) remain confident that a draft agreement can be achieved with a roadmap for completion by the 2021 Ministerial. Most documents generated by the JSI group are not publicly available. However, the titles of documents are available publicly. As of August 21, 70 documents are listed as having been submitted by Members on the JSI on electronic commerce. The most recent document is dated August 19 and is titled a “Stocktake text” (INF/ECOM/57). A July 23 document is titled “Facilitator’s note – Services Market Access — List of Proponents’ sectors of interest”).

Statements by the eight candidates seeking to become the next WTO Director-General

What follows are excerpts from candidates’ prepared statements to the General Council, my notes of their responses to questions at their press conferences following meeting with the General Council, and my notes on their comments at webinars hosted by the Washington International Trade Association (WITA) and the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Dr. Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico)

In his prepared statement to the General Council on July 15, Dr. Seade listed completion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations as an issue to be resolved in the first 100 days of his becoming Director-General. The Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on E-commerce was one of a number of JSIs announced at the 11th Ministerial Confernce in Buenos Aires in 2017. Dr. Seade included all JSIs as areas where he would be expecting concrete results by June 2021.

“1. Within the first hundred days: I will work closely with
members in seeking to i. reach agreement on fisheries subsidies.” (Google translation from French).

“2. Second horizon, towards our MC12 conference, and aware of the fact that its date is not yet fixed, it is important that we look for concrete results
by June 2.021, both in joint initiatives and in issues that aim to give us a more transparent and effective WTO.” (Google translation from French).

At his press conference on July 15 after his meeting with the General Council, Dr. Seade was not asked any questions about the fisheries subsidies negotiations or about the e-commerce JSI.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Seade on July 7. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-seade/. During the webinar, Dr. Seade was not asked specifically about either the fisheries subsidies negotiations or about the Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce. However, he was asked a question on whether, if he was selected as the next Director-General, he would encourage plurilateral negotiations. All of the JSIs are plurilateral negotiations open to any Member who wishes to join. Below are my notes on the question asked and Dr. Seade’s response on plurilaterals.

Q: On the role of plurilaterals in the WTO, would you encourage their use if you are selected as the next Director-eneral?

A:  On plurilaterals, Dr. Seade tries to take a pragmatic and historic approach.  Looking at the history of the multilateral trading system, the Tokyo Round created a host of plurilaterals which were powerful to create rules that were accepted by many of the most important countries on a range of subjects (AD, Subsidies) — the so-called Tokyo Round Codes.  It was a great way to move the process of liberalization forward.  In Dr. Seade’s view, the great achievement in the Uruguay Round was to move to substantively universal rules (agriculture and textiles which had previously been outside of GATT rules were brought inside; the Tokyo Round Codes moved to Agreements applicable to all).  The Uruguay Round was possible because there were huge inducements for developing countries to accept services, TRIPs in exchange for textiles and agriculture liberalization.  However, the negotiating environment has changed. It is no longer possible to get liberalization through negotiations just betweenthe U.S. and the EU where the results are then accepted by others (e.g., agriculture). Now negotiations need to include China, India and others who need to be part and where large differences in objectives may make multilateral negotiations more difficult.  Therefore the WTO needs plurilaterals to permit forward movement.  However, the WTO and its Members need to work largely on the basis that any benefits from plurilaterals will be provided to all Members and that the agreement is open to any Member to join later if desired.  In Dr. Seade’s view, if the WTO doesn’t allow use of plurilaterals, progress at the WTO will stop.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria)

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala mentions both concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations and updating the WTO rules to include rules on e-commerce. She adds the need to bridge the digital divide so that any such rules will have broader application and broader input.

“The WTO appears paralysed at a time when its rule book would greatly benefit from an update to 21st century issues such as e-commerce and the digital economy, the green and circular economies. Issues of women and trade and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are important to ensure greater inclusion. Bridging the digital divide to enable Least Developed Countries and other developing countries to participate will be key.”

“My vision is also of a rejuvenated and strengthened WTO that will be confident to tackle effectively ongoing issues such as the fisheries negotiations. With political will, outstanding issues of subsidies that lead to overfishing and unsustainable fishing can be concluded.”

“A rejuvenated WTO must also take on fresh challenges, such as ensuring optimal complementarity between trade and the environment and ensuring that WTO rules best respond to the realities of e-commerce and the opportunities and challenges of the digital economy.”

“Should I be elected, I would work with Members to prioritize delivering a successful MC12 with good outcomes on fisheries, agriculture and other areas. I would also prioritize updating the rulebook * * *.”

During the press conference on July 15 after her meeting with the General Council, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was asked a question on what progress in negotiations was achievable by the next Ministerial Conference and was also asked a question on how she would work towards ensuring a successful outcome on e-commerce negotiations. My notes on her responses to those questions follow.

On the question of what is achievable by the next Ministerial in 2021 and whether it is best to go after issues one at a time or in a larger grouping, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala indicated that she hoped the WTO Membership would make a decision soon on who should be Director-General so whoever is selected has more time before the next Ministerial. But even if a decision is not made until November 2020, there are some areas that could be ready by the next Ministerial. For example, a fisheries subsidies agreement should be achievable. There was a lot of discussion in the General Council on trust and building trust to move negotiations along. Trust is obviously an important issue. So the WTO may need to sequence issues to build trust by achieving a win or two. Once there are some successes, it should be possible to handle more issues in parallel.

The question on what Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would do as Director-General to see that an agreement on e-commerce was pursued was answered by noting that there was extensive work being done plurilaterally by many Members as one of a number of joint statement initiatives. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala agrees that an agreement on e-commerce is very important, but she notes that there is a digital divide where many poorer countries don’t have the infrastructure to take advantage of e-commerce. The WTO, working with other multilateral organizations, needs to see that resources are put together to help countries address the digital divide. Once the digital divide is addressed, all Members should want to and be able to participate in the e-commerce negotiations, so that the agreement becomes a multilateral one.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on July 21. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-wto-dg-candidate-dr-ngozi-okonjo-iweala/. During the webinar, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala made an opening statement in which she reviewed the need to generate some early wins for the WTO at the 12th Ministerial Conference including both fisheries subsidies and e-commerce. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was also asked speciically about e-commerce and digital trade and how to move those talks forward. Below are my notes on those portions of the webinar.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala stated that the WTO is really at a critical moment, an existential crisis.  She believes that something needs to be done to give a lift to the organization.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would focus as Director-General on the next Ministerial Conference and what wins could be obtained at the Conference.  She believes that concluding the fisheries subsidies negotiations with its issues of overcapacity and overfishing should be pursued and could be concluded even before the Ministerial Conference.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also believes that the WTO must update the rule book to cover 21st century issues.  As she has noted, the digital economy is driving the world during the COVID-19 pandemic and is of great importance to many Members.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes that the WTO needs to develop rules for e-commerce as e-commerce is the future of much of trade. At the same time, the WTO must address the digital divide so participation and benefits are available to all.

Q: On e-commerce and digital trade, how do you see rules being developed? Should the rules be based on the historic principles of the WTO?

A:  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes that ecommerce and digital trade are very important topics. The WTO must ensure two things. First, traditional WTO principles should apply (non-discrimination, etc.).  She believes that it would be important to get many more countries to join the talks. Stated differently, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala believes the WTO should always prefer a multilateral negotiation and agreement. However, sometimes plurilaterals are needed to make progress.  Second, the WTO working with other organizations needs to address the digital divide. In Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s view, the fact that many developing countries are not participating flows from the fact that they don’t have the infrastructure to engage in e-commerce to a significant extent and hence neither participate in the talks nor gain benefits.  This is the digital divide.  WTO is not a financial institution, so the WTO needs to team with other organizations to help developing countries overcome the digital divide which will permit these Members to then participate in the negotiations.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also believes that the level of commitments under an e-commerce agreement will need to vary based on the ability of Members to accept obligations and to contribute.

Mr. Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt)

Mr. Mamdouh’s prepared statement to the General Council on July 15 identified both fisheries subsidies and the various Joint Statement Initiatives, including e-commerce, as priorities for movement by the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12).

“For the immediate future, we need to set clear priorities. MC12 is around the corner and it needs to be a turning point in the direction of the WTO and take it on a different path towards ‘positive territory’. I believe we need to do two things: 1) agree on a reform agenda and 2) achieve concrete progress on issues currently under negotiation.

“On current negotiating subjects, fisheries subsidies come first as the one item expected to be concluded by the end of 2020. It is crucial for our future to have a successful conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations.

“There are also the Joint Statement Initiatives on e-commerce, domestic regulation in services, MSMEs and investment facilitation. These initiatives address pressing issues of importance to many Members and pause new challenges.”

During Mr. Mamdouh’s press conference after his meeting with the General Council, he was asked one question about the agenda for the twelfth Ministerial Conference which resulted in an answer that included pursuing completion of the fisheries subsidies agreement and work on the Joint Statement Initiatives. My notes on Mr. Mamdouh’s response is provided below.

Mr. Mamdouh was asked if there will be enough time to prepare for the next Ministerial to have a positive agenda/outcome. He answered that if the selection process concludes before November, there should be sufficient time. In his view, the next Ministerial needs to be a turning point for the WTO. At MC12, the WTO must have a clear agenda for reform. There is not currently a mainstream focus on reform; issues are being raised ad hoc. Second, the WTO needs to score successes – fisheries subsidies and progress on joint statement initiatives are the likely areas for success.

WITA had a webinar with Mr. Mamdouh on June 23. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-candidate-hamid-mamdouh/. During the webinar, Mr. Mamdouh was asked a question about e-commerce and was also asked his views on plurilaterals and whether he would support their use if he becomes the next Director-General. As all of the Joint Statement Initiatives involve plurilateral negotiations, the question applies to e-commerce along with the other JSIs. Below are my notes on the questions and Mr. Mamdouh’s responses.

Q: U.S. has raised various issues of importance to them. How do you see elements of a reform agenda getting U.S. support if U.S. concerns are not addressed or included in the agenda?

A: Mr. Mamdouh indicated that U.S. concerns were being examined at the WTO. He took e-commerce as an example. Looking at the e-commerce agenda at the WTO, Mr. Mamdouh is of the view that there needs to be discussions that haven’t taken place at the WTO in a very long time.  Trade issues today are of increased complexity where issues of increased trade liberalization are juxtaposed with regulatory interests. E-commerce/digital trade has a slew of legitimate regulatory issues where Members can have very different perspectives. Examples would include privacy policies, cyber security, localization among others.  In Mr. Mamdouh’s view, these regulatory policy issues are both legitimate and of different importance to different Members.  So the question arises as to how new rules deal with these diversities of Member needs while ensuring rules that respect different needs while ensuring actions by Members are the least trade restrictive  While the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement and Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement are examples of issues with similar types of competing regulatory needs, many of the new issues are as or more complex. These new complex areas are not seeing discussions to date between trade folks, regulators and lawyers to help clarify the needs, challenges and options that may be available to permit WTO progress on fashioning new rules. In Mr. Mamdouh’s view, WTO Members must do a much better job of discussing issues and clarifying them so the options can be taken back home and reviewed to permit Members to get into real negotiations.

Q: Plurilaterals can be defined as agreements by like minded countries on topics.  How do you view plurilaterals and would you support them if you were selected as the next Director-General?  Should most favored nation treatment be eliminated for plurilaterals, so the benefits of plurilateral liberalization only goes to those who are participating?

A:  In Mr. Mamdouh’s view, one needs to clarify what is meant by plurilaterals.  Are we talking about plurilateral processes or outcomes?  Mr. Mamdouh views that there are two types of plurilaterals that have been pursued over time. The first is a plurilateral process that produces plurilateral outcomes — that is where the Agreement applies only to the signatories to that agreement. These are like the agreements in Annex 4 to the WTO (civil aircraft, government procurement, dairy and bovine meat). While these can be pursued they are less likely as they require the consent of all Members.  There are also plurilateral negotiations that produce multilateral outcomes. That is, the resulting agreement provides benefits to all even though the agreement was among some of the Members.  These are quite normal and are clearly within the spirit of the WTO.  Practically, Members engaged in plurilaterals will want there to be a critical mass of Members engaged for these types of plurilateral agreements to move forward. Moreover, Mr. Mamdouh noted that there is no requirement that all Members agree to the launch of plurilateral negotiations. That is not a requirement of the WTO and should not be assumed.  On the question of whether plurilateral agreements will opt increasingly to limit benefits to members, Mr. Mamdouh believes that the concept of most favored nation treatment in plurilaterals will undergo a stress test in the coming years as there are issues re reciprocity.    

Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova)

On July 16, Amb. Ulianovschi was the first candidate to meet with the General Council. In his prepared statement when Amb. Ulianovschi got to what he thought the immediate priorities for the new Director-General should be, completing the fisheries subsidies negotiations and making progress on Joint Statement Initiatives were two of the priorities listed.

“In terms of immediate priorities for the future Director General of the WTO, the following should be considered (including in the preparation process for MC12):

“2. Build upon the progress achieved already on the fisheries subsidies negotiations and strongly support Members to achieve a negotiated text by MC12;

* * *

“4. Further encouraging and supporting discussions on new and existing Joint Initiatives, particularly: on Elecronic Commerce, Investment Facilitation for Development, Domestic Services Regulation, as well as the dialogs of the informal group on MSMES and SMEs and others.

“5. Promoting negotiations of new commercial disciplines and address issues of the digital environment and new areas of intellectual property.”

During Amb. Ulianovschi’s press conference after his meeting with the General Council, the last question he was asked had Amb. Ulianovschi point to the Joint Statement Initiatives (which include electronic commerce) as a sign Members could make progress on reform issues. Amb. Ulianovschi was not asked specifically about either fisheries subsidies or electronic commerce. My notes on the question asked and Amb. Ulianovschi’s answer are provided below.

Q: The last question asked was about getting the WTO out of crisis; in particular, what is the core factor causing the crisis and how would Mr. Ulianovschi address the factor if he was selected as Director-General.

A: Mr. Ulianovschi answered that this is an existential question for the WTO. The first priority, in his view, to get out of the crisis is for there to be trust among Members. The role of the Director-General is to enhance feelings of trust through confidence building steps. Many issues which have been unresolved for a long time have undermined trust. Joint initiative statement issues are advancing and give hope that the organization is relevant and can deliver. This is a good sign that there is a common purpose among the Members.

WITA held a webinar with Amb. Tudor Ulianovschi on August 26, 2020.  https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-tudor-ulianovschi/. During the webinar, Amb. Ulianovschi was asked two questions where his response included views on the fisheries subsidies negotiations and/or on e-commerce/digital trade. My notes on the questions asked and on Amb. Ulianovschi’s responses are provided below.

Q:  If you are the next Director-General, what would be your priorities for the 2021 Ministerial Conference and how would you define success?

A:  In Amb. Ulianovschi’s view, the next Ministerial must show some results.  He believes the top priority would be completing the ongoing negotiations on fisheries subsidies, which is important to fulfill U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14.6.  He believes that the Members are close to getting language agreed to.  Completing the fisheries subsidies agreement Is just the first step, but it is an important one.  He would also focus on ongoing Joint Statement Initiatives (JSI) such as on  digital trade/e-commerce.   JSIs are plurilateral negotiations as opposed to multilateral ones.  As seen by Members during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital trade is of growing importance.  A key question is how to help least developed countries get involved and get help building the infrastructure so such Members can participate.  Also Members will need to deal with a range of issues surround digital trade such as cybersecurity, privacy, etc.  Amb. Ulianovschi stated that a Ministerial declaration would be expected at the 2021 Ministerial on e-commerce.  He also noted that there are other JSIs as well that are being discussed.  He believes that at the next Ministerial Members should have a clear message of support for small, medium and micro enterprises.  Such enterprises are a huge issue for most Members.  Many of these businesses are being severely challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic and many will likely go bankrupt.  WTO Members need to help identify how the WTO and other organizations can work with them (financial institutions and ICC). 

Q:  You say that business as usual isn’t viable anymore.  What has changed?  If plurilateral work is where we are headed,  do we need to rethink the most favored nation principle?

A:  Amb. Ulianovschi stated that when one looks at the WTO, one sees that there is a lack of trust which in turn has meant there is lack of forward movement on negotiations.  Thus, it is clear that  business as usual isn’t working.  But that recognition doesn’t mean that the organization starts from zero.  What is clear is that things need to change.  The WTO is not responding to 21st century issues which cannot continue if the organization is to maintain relevance.  On the issue of multilateral vs. plurilateral negotiations, the only multilateral negotiation that is proceeding is on fisheries subsidies.  As noted, Amb. Ulianovschi hopes that the fisheries subsidies negotiations will be completed by the next Ministerial in 2021.  Where trust is lacking, he belives Members need to seek progress from the bottom up – finding like-minded Members who are concerned about an issue and willing to negotiate rules on the issue.  Plurilaterals are going on (JSIs are an example).  This is a good sign as plurilaterals show that a number of members are concerned with a topic.  Any plurilateral negotiation must be done in a transparent and inclusive manner.  Based on his discussions with Members, Amb. Ulianovschi knows that there is a large support for keeping MFN applicable to benefits from plurilaterals.

H.E. Yoo Myung-hee (Republic of Korea)

Minister Yoo in her prepared statement to the General Council identified both fisheries subsidies and the JSI on electronic commerce as priorities for the 12th Ministerial.

“MC12 will be a critical milestone of Members’ ability to deliver results and set the agenda for the future. The new Director-General must help make it a success in order to build trust in the WTO.

“A successful outcome on fisheries subsidies will demonstrate the credibility of the WTO and its ability to contribute to global objectives on sustainable development. It will also provide the world with the benefits for
trade and environmental sustainability. I will do everything I can to support these negotiations and bring them swiftly to a successful conclusion, for endorsement by Ministers at MC12.

“Electronic commerce is also an area in which we should work towards tangible outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of this issue. A comprehensive agreement by next summer may be ambitious, but I think we can take some concrete steps and lay out the path forward for post-MC12 work.”

During Minister Yoo’s press conference after her meeting with the General Council, she was asked questions on how she would restore trust if selected the next Director-General and how she would bring major Members onto issues being considered. Fisheries subsidies and e-commerce are mentioned in one or the other answers. My notes on the questions and answers provided are presented below.

Q: A question was asked as to how Minister Yoo would restore trust if selected as the next Director-General.

A: Minister Yoo noted her experience in negotiating trade deals with all level of countries around the world. She knows what it takes to negotiate and what it takes to bring negotiations to a close. She is confident that she can earn confidence from Members and achieve tangible outcomes. The key is to obtain even a small success at the MC12 (e.g., fisheries subsidies agreement by then) which would help build trust and convince the world that progress can happen at the WTO.

Q: What does it mean for the WTO to be relevant, and how would you bring on major members who may not agree with the issue being considered?

A: Minister Yoo stated that the WTO needs to revitalize its negotiating function and must be able to enforce its rules (by restoring the Appellate Body). Given 21st century realities, the WTO needs to update its rule book and to achieve agreement on issues that have real global effects such as the joint initiative efforts on e-commerce, MSMEs, investments, and other issues. That said, there are open issues from The Doha Development Agenda that are not moving because there are different views on how to move forward. In terms of how you bring members to the negotiating table, part of the answer is to obtain small successes to build trust and momentum.

WITA had a webinar with Minister Yoo on August 11.  https://www.wita.org/event-videos/candidate-h-e-yoo-myung-hee/. During the webinar, Minister Yoo was asked both about the e-commerce negotiations and about the ongoing fisheries subsidies negotiations. My notes on the questions and her responses are provided below.

Q: How important is it to move forward with a WTO reform agenda? In particular digital trade and e-commerce have become much more important to global trade during the pandemic.  How important is it for the WTO to address the lack of rules on digital trade and e-commerce?

A:  Minister Yoo indicated that the negotiations on e-commerce were important before the pandemic and are even more important now. Thus, it is critical to have successful negotiations.  WTO reform is very important generally.  All three pillars of the WTO — negotiations, dispute settlement and notifications and monitoring — need to be strengthened.  The WTO rule book was largely created 25 years ago.  Minister Yoo noted that the world didn’t have the smart phone or even much e-commerce back then.  So the existing WTO rules are limited in their ability to deal with current commercial reality.  It is important that the WTO achieve an agreement on e-commerce to show that the WTO can adapt to 21st century needs.  That said, Minister Yoo cautioned that Members have different views on various aspects of e-commerce.  She believes there are some low hanging fruit — e-signature and trade facilitation issues — that Members could be able to agree on relatively quickly.   However, Minister Yoo also noted that there are difficult issues in e-commerce tied to other government policy objectives — e.g., data transfer, localization — that may take longer to reach agreement on.  In tackling the more difficult set of issues, WTO Members need to look to see if the proposed rule serves a legitimate policy objective of Members.  If yes, then Members need to see if there is a way to achieve the objective in the least trade restrictive manner while facilitating e-commerce.  Considering the full set of issues that are present in the e-commerce talks, it may be too ambitious to achieve an agreement by the 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021.  Hopefully, WTO Members engaged in the talks can achieve a consolidated text by the Ministerial.  And then hopefully Members could agree on a path forward.  Minister Yoo is optimistic that Members will be able to come up with an ambitious agreement.

Q: Fisheries subsidies negotiations were hopefully going to conclude by this summer before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed negotiations. What are your thoughts on how talks can be brought to a successful conclusion?

A:  Minister Yoo stated that the fisheries subsidies negotiations are important to conclude to show the continued relevance of the WTO. The fisheries subsidies negotiations are the only multilateral talks at the WTO that are active (most others are plurilateral).  Achieving agreement on fisheries subsidies can also contribute to the UN’s sustainable development goals.  For both reasons, concluding the negotiations is very important.  Minister Yoo believes that Members should focus their energies on completing the negotiations by the end of this year so that the agreement can be endorsed by Ministers at the next Ministerial Conference in 2021.  For the next Director-General, the most urgent agenda item is to help facilitate the conclusion of the fisheries subsidies talks by the end of this year or at the very latest by the next Ministerial Conference in 2021.

H.E. Amina C. Mohamed (Kenya)

Minister Mohamed was the last candidate to appear before the General Council on July 16. Minister Mohamed did not address specifically either fisheries subsidies or the Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce in her prepared statement to the General Council.

Similarly, during Minister Mohamed’s press conference after her meeting with the General Council, she was not asked a question dealing specifically with fisheries subsidies or the Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce, nor did she include mention of either in answer to any of the questions asked.

WITA had a webinar with H.E. Mohamed on August 6. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/ambassador-amina-mohamed/. During the webinar, Minister Mohamed referenced digital trade in her opening comments and was asked a question about plurilateral negotiations. As noted before all of the Joint Statement Initiatives (including e-commerce) are plurilateral negotiations . My notes on her comments on these issues are provided below.

Opening statement:  Once the world recovers from the pandemic, the WTO will still face challenges of renewal and updating the rules to address global issues such as climate change, the digital revolution, and sustainable development.

Q: on developing new rules at the WTO, it has proven difficult to get agreement among all Members.  This has led to many Members turning to plurilaterals to achieve progress.  What are your views on plurilaterals?  Should MFN treatment of benefits be reconsidered where plurilateral agreements are the basis for liberalization or new rules?

A:  Minister Mohamed noted that plurilateral agreements are not new in the WTO; there were plurilateral agreements in the GATT.  She believes that plurilateral agreements will continue to be pursued and be part of the trading system.  Indeed, Minister Mohamed stated that the completion and/or start of plurilateral negotiations was a “good” that came out of the Nairobi and the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conferences in 2015 and 2017 respectively.  Countries that want to take on additional obligations will come together to negotiate new obligations for themselves.  In this way, plurilaterals complement the multilateral system.  Minister Mohamed stated that once there is a plurilateral agreement, it is important to share the benefits on an MFN basis if you want broad acceptance by Members.  Minister Mohamed had been the chair of the Nairobi Ministerial at which an update to the Information Technology Agreement (ITA2) was agreed to. Before the Ministerial, Minister Mohamed had had to travel to a number of capitals to get agreement to apply benefits on an MFN basis. At the end, the benefits of ITA2 are shared on an MFN basis and the agreement is open to all Members who want to join at a later date.  This led to unanimous acceptance of the ITA2 at Nairobi in 2015.  Minister Mohamed believes that it is important for ongoing plurilateral negotiations to ensure that the benefits are applied on MFN basis and that the agreement is open to all Members.

H.E. Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia)

Minister Al-Tuwaijri was the first candidate to meet with the General Council on July 17. In his prepared statement, Minister Al-Tuwaijri identifies fisheries subsidies and e-commerce as two early deliverables for the WTO at the 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021.

“And finally, concerning the first question on what opportunities and solutions will emerge from current challenges, the existing delay in convening Ministers for the 12th Ministerial Conference may be a blessing in disguise. If we move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity of having an additional year to prepare, we could find and deliver solutions at MC12, particularly on fishery subsidies and electronic commerce and digital trade, which would demonstrate that the WTO can address issues in the public good – that would deliver on your goal of ‘optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development’ – while recognizing the contribution of e-commerce to economic growth in all markets, which has been emphatically affirmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although concluding the fishery subsidies negotiations would be a welcome sign that WTO Members can agree on something, we should not exaggerate the impression that this small step will make on our constituents. We need to aim higher, and the DG must work overtime to support a more complete agenda for the future of the WTO by MC12.”

During Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s press conference after meeting with the General Council, one question asked about WTO reform resulted in an answer by the Minister which provided both fisheries subsidies and e-commerce as issues where results by the 12th Ministerial Conference were possible. My notes on the question and Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s answer are provided below.

On the issue of WTO reform, Minister AlTuwaijri recognized that the WTO is a member driven organization. Second, the Director-General has a function to facilitate and to assess, but there is also room to improve the Director-General’s role. For example, the next ministerial (MC12) has been delayed til 2021. The delay provides an opportunity to improve the discussion at MC 12 and the outcomes that are possible. Bringing management and leadership skills to the Director-General position will permit setting goals, metrics for measuring progress in achieving those goals and providing a feedback loop on gaps that need to be addressed. Certain current issues should be achievable, such as fisheries subsidies and e-commerce. In the Minister’s view, COVID-19 and post-pandemic recovery provide the WTO an opportunity to address core needs of Members by doing a performance assessment. Where are the gaps in performance? Why did those gaps develop? How should the WTO proceed to eliminate the gaps? From his business and government experience, Minister Al-Tuwaijri knows that this type of transformation of the WTO to a more goal-oriented organization is possible.

WITA held a webinar with Minister Al-Tuwaijri on August 5, https://www.wita.org/event-videos/director-general-candidate-he-mohammed-al-tuwaijri/. During the webinar, Minister Al-Tuwaijri was asked his views on plurilateral agreements, which include the Joint Statement Initiatives such as the one on e-commerce. My notes on the question and Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s response follows.

Q: Do you see plurilateral negotiations as a good alternative to the lack of progress in multilateral talkes?

A:  Minister Al-Tuwaijri responded that his short answer would be Yes.  Members need to be able to move on where multilateral talks are blocked or not occurring.  So in Minister Al-Tuwaijri’s view plurilateral negotiations and agreements are part of the answer.  Because plurilateral agreements have existed for some time, Minister Al-Tuwaijri is interested in why some Members don’t join the agreement over time if the agreement is open to all and provides MFN benefits.  The answer to the “why” question is important if plurilaterals are to be more effective and lead to the agreements becoming multilateral over time.

The Rt Hon Dr. Liam Fox MP (United Kingdom)

Dr. Fox was the last candidate to appear before the General Council. His prepared statement has a section which reviews what Dr. Fox considers one of the new Director-General’s first tasks, delivering a successful 12th Ministerial Conference in 2021. Among the issues to be addressed are completion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations and progress on the Joint Statement Initiatives, including on e-commerce.

“Now, one of the first tasks for a new DG will be to deliver a successful 12th Ministerial Conference. The contents are, of course, for the members to agree but it is essential that the DG works with members to produce ideas and an agenda that, yes, excites us here at the WTO but is also seen as relevant outside. It must focus on outcomes, not process, helping the real businesses – large, medium, small and micro – upon which real prosperity depends.

“So what are some of our specific challenges?

“Well, despite remaining gaps, members are perhaps closer than they have been in the past to agreeing new rules to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies, and we must push for an outcome as soon as possible to meet the SDG goal set by Leaders. But, this is not just about fish, but about showing that the WTO can take steps on sustainability more generally – an area where members are rightly bringing forward other ideas, and where the public attach great importance.

“I know many members are also keen to make progress on Joint Initiatives on e-commerce, services, MSMEs and investment – these will be an important part of the discussions in the coming months.”

During Dr. Fox’s press conference after his July 17th meeting with the General Council he was asked one question on the types of reform needed. In his answer Dr. Fox mentioned fisheries subsidies as one topic. My notes on the question and his answer are provided below.

The last question inquired into what reform is needed. Dr. Fox articulated that reform should be viewed in three buckets. The first is conceptual reform. By this he means, Members recommitting to the basic principles of the WTO (most favoured nation, national treatment and transparency of commitments). He believes this is what MC 12 needs to focus on. The second is organizational reform. By this Dr. Fox means what does the team look like, the Director-General being first among equals; selecting Secretariat staff that are the most talented and challenging group. The third is policy reform. By that, Dr. Fox means what issues will be addressed — legacy issues and issues to update organization such as fisheries subsidies; resolution of the Appellate Body impasse. Dr. Fox concluded by saying that the Director-General position is a job for a politician and not for a technocrat at this time.

WITA had a webinar with Dr. Fox on July 30, 2020. https://www.wita.org/event-videos/conversation-with-dr-liam-fox/. During the webinar, Dr. Fox referenced each of the fisheries subsidies negotiations and updating the rules to cover e-commerce briefly. My notes on his comments are provided below.

Dr. Fox opined that the fisheries subsidies negotiations and around that the broader question of sustainability are issues which are not being addressed in the best way by the WTO Members.  The WTO and its Members don’t seem interested in using NGOs and young people who have a deep interest in the oceans by including them in the communication process so that there is better understanding that what the WTO is concerned about are issues of interest to the people of the world.  In Dr. Fox’s view, there is a disconnect between what the WTO is doing and what the general public is concerned about that has undermined the sense of joint endeavor that was important in the Uruguay Round.

Dr. Fox reviewed the importance of taking forward issues on e-commerce and trade in services. For Dr. Fox, the key question is how does the WTO bring its rule book up to date particularly on the changes in technology. Once the rule book is brought up to date, then the key is ensuring that all Members comply with the rules.

Conclusion

All eight of the candidates to become the next Director-General of the WTO view the completion of the fisheries subsidies as an important early objective and deliverable to demonstrate the WTO’s continued relevance. An agreement on fisheries subsidies would also help support the UN’s sustainable development goals.

All candidates also understand that there is an urgent need to update the WTO’s rule book with the most obvious example being the lack of agreed rules on electronic commerce and digital trade. All recognize that the role of digital trade has been critical to help countries during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be a critical aspect of global trade in goods and services going forward. The Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce announced at the 2017 Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference currently has more than 80 WTO Members participating in the negotiations. Those Members account for more than 90% of global e-commerce. Reports from the co-convenors indicate the likelihood that there will be at least a consolidated text available by the next Ministerial Conference to be held in 2021. However, because the JSI is a plurilateral negotiation and not a multilateral one, it is envisioned that benefits will be available on an MFN basis (i.e., to all Members of the WTO whether part of the negotiations or not) and that the agreement will be open to all Members to join as desired.