Austria

Third Round of Consultations in Selecting new WTO Director-General – eight days to go, political outreach continues at high level

The last WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevedo, departed at the end of August. The existing four Deputy Directors-General are overseeing WTO operations awaiting the outcome of the selection process for a new Director-General. While eight candidates were put forward by early July and had two months to “become known” to WTO Members, the process of winnowing down the candidates started in September and has gone through two rounds where the candidate pool went from eight to five to two. Which brings the WTO to the third and final round of consultations by the troika of Chairs of the General Council, Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review Body with the WTO Membership to find the one candidate with the broadest support both geographically but also by type of Member (developed, developing, least developed).

The third round started on October 19 and will continue through October 27. While the process is confidential, with each Member meeting individually with the troika and providing the Member’s preference, Members can, of course, release information on the candidate of their preference if they so choose.

The two candidates who remain in contention are Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria. While all eight of the candidates who were put forward in June and July were well qualified, Minister Yoo and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala have received high marks from WTO Members from the very beginning. While Minister Yoo has the advantage in terms of trade background, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has an impressive background as a former finance minister, 25 years at the World Bank and her current role as Chair of GAVI.

The procedures for selecting a new Director-General which were agreed to in late 2002 by the General Council put a primary focus on qualifications as one would assume. However, where there are equally well qualified candidates then geographical diversity is specifically identified as a a relevant criteria. There has never been a Director-General from Africa and there has only been one Director-General from Asia (although there was also a Director-General from the Pacific area outside of Asia). With the UN Sustainable Development Goals including one on gender equality (SDG #5), many Members have also been interesting in seeing a Director-General picked from the women candidates. Since both of the two remaining candidates are women, geographical diversity will likely have an outsized role in the third round .

Both remaining candidates are receiving strong support from their home governments in terms of outreach to foreign leaders seeking support for their candidate. The candidates, of course, are also extremely busy with ongoing outreach.

Thus, Minister Yoo traveled back to Europe last week and had a meeting with the EC Trade Commissioner Dombrovskis on October 13, among other meetings. See https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/cldr_20_1935; Yonhap News Agency, Seoul’s top trade official to visit Europe to drum up support her WTO chief race, October 12, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201012003300320?section=business/industry;

Similarly, the Korean President Moon Jae-in, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Nak-yon are engaged in outreach for Minister Yoo’s candidacy. Korea JoongAng Daily, October 12, 2020, Moon, allies intensify campaign for Yoo Myung-hee to head WTO, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2020/10/12/national/politics/Yoo-Myunghee-WTO-Moon-Jaein/20201012172600409.html. Contacts have been made with heads of state or senior officials in Malaysia, Germany, Brazil, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Japan and the U.S. among others. See The Korea Times, October 20, 2020, Government goes all out for Yoo’s WTO election Government goes all out for Yoo’s WTO election, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/10/120_297887.html. President Moon has also raised the issue of support with new ambassadors to Korea — including the German, Vietnamese, Austrian, Chilean, Pakistani and Omani ambassadors. Yonhap News Agency, October 16, 2020, Moon requests support for S. Korea’s WTO chief bid in meeting with foreign envoys, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201016008600315.

Minister Yoo is reported to be having problems in solidifying support from some major Asian Members — including China and Japan — for reasons at least partially separate from her qualifications and is facing what appears to be block support by African WTO Members for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. Thus, broad outreach in Asia, the Americas and in Europe will be important for Minister Yoo if she is to be the last candidate standing on October 28-29.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is similarly receiving strong support from her government where President Muhammadu Buhari indicated full support by the Nigerian government. See The Tide News Online, Ocotber 14, 2020, Buhari Backs Okonjo-Iweala For WTO Job, http://www.thetidenewsonline.com/2020/10/14/buhari-backs-okonjo-iweala-for-wto-job/. Press accounts report that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has the full backing of the African Union as well as support in both the Americas and Asia. See RTL Today, October 19, 2020, ‘I feel the wind behind my back’: Nigerian WTO candidate, https://today.rtl.lu/news/business-and-tech/a/1596831.html. Many have felt that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is the candidate to beat, and she is certainly helped by the support of the African Union WTO Members but will also need broad support in the other regions of the world to be the one remaining candidate.

With just eight days to go to the conclusion of the third round of consultations, the remaining two candidates and their governments are turning over every stone in their effort to generate the support needed to come out of the third round as the sole candidate left.

While the candidate announced on October 29 as the remaining candidate still has to be put forward to the General Council for consensus adoption as the new Director-General, it seems unlikely at the moment that either candidate, should she emerge as the preference of the WTO membership, would be blocked by a Member from becoming the next Director-General. While such blockage is always a possibility, the 2002 agreed procedures have prevented such blockage and hopefully will result in a clean conclusion this year as well.

It is certain to be an interesting end of October.

Digital Services Taxes – New U.S. Section 301 Investigations on Nine Countries and the European Union

In 2019, the United States initiated a section 301 investigation on France’s digital services tax (“DST”), made a finding that France’s DST “is unreasonable or discriminatory and burdens or restricts U.S. Commerce.”  84 Fed. Reg. 66956 (Dec. 6, 2019).  Additional duties of up to 100% were proposed on French goods valued at $2.4 billion.  France agreed to hold up application of its tax until the end of 2020 and the U.S. agreed to hold up tariffs to give the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development time to conclude discussions on a possible agreed international tax structure for digital services.

On June 2, 2020, the U.S. Trade Representative announced the initiation of 301 investigations on nine countries and the European Union who have either implemented DSTs or who have such DSTs under development.  https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/june/ustr-initiates-section-301-investigations-digital-services-taxes.  The countries who are subject to the investigations include Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.  The notice of initiation of the investigations will appear in the Federal Register on June 5, 2020 but was posted on the USTR website on June 2.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/assets/frn/FRN.pdf.

Because of the COVID-19 situation, written comments are being accepted but it is unclear if there will be a public hearing.  Written comments are due by July 15, 2020.  The Federal Register notice pre-publication is embedded below.

USTR FR notice 301 investigation on digital services

The focus of the investigation will be on the following aspects of DSTs:

“The investigation initially will focus on the following concerns with DSTs: discrimination against U.S. companies; retroactivity; and possibly unreasonable tax policy. With respect to tax policy, the DSTs may diverge from norms reflected in the U.S. tax system and the international tax system in several respects. These departures may include: extraterritoriality; taxing revenue not income; and a purpose of penalizing particular technology companies for their commercial success.”  Page 5.

Based on the prior investigation into the French DST, there is little doubt that all of the programs will be found to violate Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended, in some respect.

For example, in the French case, the USTR made five findings relevant to some or all of the current investigations:

‘First, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST is
intended to, and by its structure and operation does, discriminate against U.S. digital companies.”

“Second, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
retroactive application is unusual and inconsistent with prevailing tax principles and renders the tax particularly burdensome for covered U.S. companies, which will also affect their customers, including U.S. small businesses and consumers.”

“Third, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
application to gross revenue rather than income contravenes prevailing tax principles and imposes significant additional burdens on covered U.S. companies.”

“Fourth, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
application to revenues unconnected to a presence in France contravenes prevailing international tax principles and is particularly burdensome for covered U.S. companies.”

“Fifth, the evidence collected in this investigation indicates that the French DST’s
application to a small group of digital companies contravenes international tax principles counseling against targeting the digital economy for special, unfavorable tax treatment.”

USTR, Section 301 Investigation, Report on France’s Digital Services Tax, Dec. 2, 2019, pages 1, 3, 4, 5.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Report_On_France%27s_Digital_Services_Tax.pdf.

The EU and the EU-member states covered have DSTs similar to France’s (without retroactivity) with some DSTs already in effect.  Other countries’ systems appear to be similar as well with many countries already applying their DST.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/assets/frn/FRN.pdf.

The full USTR report on France’s DST is embedded below.

Report_On_France’s_Digital_Services_Tax

Where taxes are already in place, action by USTR will be likely even ahead of the end of the year absent agreement with the trading partner to postpone collection.  The start of investigations at this time will enable the U.S. to complete the investigation this summer or early fall, take public comments on possible tariffs to be added if no resolution with individual countries or the EU is possible.  More specifically, the U.S. will have handled domestic legal requirements to act if other DSTs go into effect without an OECD agreement or where the tax imposed is not consistent with the OECD terms.  As stated in the USTR press release yesterday, “’President Trump is concerned that many of our trading partners are adopting tax schemes designed to unfairly target our companies,’ said USTR Robert Lighthizer. ‘We are prepared to take all appropriate action to defend our businesses and workers against any such discrimination.’”  https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/june/ustr-initiates-section-301-investigations-digital-services-taxes.

Conclusion

The OECD efforts to develop an agreed model for taxing digital services are supposed to conclude this year.  The U.S. and its leading digital services companies have been very concerned about the efforts of trading partners to impose taxes that will effectively apply only or disproportionately to them.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has added pressure on governments to find new sources of revenue, and digital services are an inviting target.

Expect this to be a very important issue in the second half of 2020.  Failure to find an acceptable solution to the United States will result in a significant escalation of trade tensions both with the EU and with many other countries going forward.