David Kleimann

Today’s webinar hosted by Georgetown Law’s Institute for International Economic Law “Rethinking the WTO: Opportunity for Transatlantic Cooperation” — many areas for likely cooperation; some important challenges

On March 10, 2021 Georgetown Law’s Institute for International Economic Law (IIEL) held the second in a series of events on “Rethinking the WTO”, this time on “Opportunity for Transatlantic Cooperation”. See Georgetown Law, Rethinking the WTO: Opportunity for Transatlantic Cooperation, March 8, 2021, https://www.law.georgetown.edu/news/rethinking-the-wto-opportunities-for-transatlantic-cooperation/. The program was introduced by David Kleimann, Senior Visiting Research Fellow, IIEL. The program was moderated by Joost Pauwelyn, Murase Visiting Professor of Law, Georgetown Law and also a professor at the Graduate Institute of Geneva. The four panelists included Sabine Weyand, Director General, Directorate General for External Trade, European Commission; Jennifer Hillman, Professor from Practice, Georgetown Law, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the WTO Appellate Body; Thomas Graham, partner at Cassidy Levy Kent and former member and Chair of the WTO Appellate Body; and Henry Gao, Associate Professor of Law, Singapore Management University, Dongfang Scholar Chair Professor, Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade and Advisory Board Member of the WTO Chairs Program.

Ms. Weyand provided an overview of the European Commission’s revised trade policy paper, focusing on the Annex dealing with WTO reform. I had reviewed the revised policy paper in a prior post. 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/. Ms. Weyand’s comments expressed hope that early statements by the Biden Administration meant that there were many areas for possible cooperation, although she started with reviving the Appellate Body — an area where cooperation is more challenging. She articulated that the EU was looking for an early commitment by the Biden team that the U.S. supported a two-tiered, binding, independent dispute settlement system — that which was promised in the Dispute Settlement Understanding. She acknowledged that the U.S. had valid concerns including on overreach on some cases.

Ms. Weyand reviewed areas where collaboration had occurred during the Trump Administration — the joint consultations on subsidies, SOEs, forced technology transfer — and opined that the process should be taken back up. She also mentioned new areas where rules were needed, including Joint Statement Initiatives (electronic commerce where the U.S. is active and others where the U.S. is not) where there should be opportunities for collaboration. She viewed that open plurilaterals were the likely necessary option for reform with benefits limited to those participating. She acknowledged that WTO Members need to address how to make folding plurilaterals into the WTO easier to do. The EU supports the U.S. view that the Special and Differential Treatment provisions and approach don’t make sense in 2021 though the revised policy.

Jennifer Hillman, after the disclaimer that she is not part of the Biden Administration and hence doesn’t speak for them, agreed that the early pronouncements by the Biden team showed significant areas of likely cooperation on WTO reform between the U.S. and the EU based on its revised trade policy paper. She believed that the period of time for getting collaboration started and showing early results was short and that many of the topics for collaboration would require time, hence raising concerns about the ability to actually see forward movement. During her direct comments, Ms. Hillman focused on areas other than dispute settlement. She noted that the concept of sustainable development appeared to have different meanings depending on whom one was talking to. For Europe, it seemed to focus on environment whereas for the Biden Administration there is a heavier focus on labor rights whereas for many WTO Members (developing and least developed countries), the focus would be development. She viewed it as important for the EU to realize focus on labor by U.S. in seeking and obtaining collaboration on sustainable development. She agreed on areas of cooperation on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, on having the WTO contribute to addressing climate change, including on border taxes that are WTO consistent, on plurilaterals and the need for change to how Special and Differential Treatment is addressed, and on the need for new (e-commerce) or revised rules (industrial subsidies).

Thomas Graham, as a former Appelate Body who had left after eight years at the end of 2019 (his and a colleague’s departure reduced the number of Appellate Body Member below the number needed to hear an appeal), believed that the problems with the dispute settlement system could not be easily addressed and would take significant time to resolve in a way that would address the underlying problems. He urged greater accountability by Appellate Body members. He noted in particular the tension between the second and third sentences of DSU 3.2 (as referenced as well in 19.2) where the bar to creating rights and obligations (important to the U.S.) was neutered by actions of the Appellate Body in clarifying existing provisions (historically the focus of the EU). Mr. Graham did not see an easy resolution to this problem without changing the language itself. He also reviewed the Appellate Body’s elimination in effect of Art. 17.6(ii) of the Agreement on Implementation of Article VI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (Antidumping Agreement or ADA), a provision intended to grant discretion to administering authorities in interpreting provisions of the Agreement which were capable of more than one interpretation. Mr. Graham noted that members of the Appellate Body viewed there being either no or very few situations where the Antidumping Agreement provisions would be capable of more than one interpretation. He also raised the question of how Members would deal with past decisions made by and principles adopted by the Appellate Body. He referenced a commentary by Amb. Dennis Shea (the Trump Administration Deputy U.S. Trade Representative in Geneva) posted on the CSIS website on March 9, 2021, “No Quick Fixes for WTO Dispute Settlement Reform” and indicated the questions raised in the paper needed to be addressed. See Center for Strategic & International Studies, No Quick Fixes for WTO Dispute Settlement Reform, March 9, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/no-quick-fixes-wto-dispute-settlement-reform (article includes eight questions Amb. Shea believes the EU needs to answer as it thinks about WTO Dispute Settlement reform).

Mr. Gao provided his perspective on how the types of reform issues identified in the EC revised trade policy paper would be viewed by China, among others. Mr. Gao indicated that China has been unwilling to consider reforms which it views as discriminating against China. Thus, initiatives like the EU’s to start a plurilateral on competitive neutrality (SOEs, heavy subsidization, etc.) is viewed by China as aimed at them and hence will never be supported by China. China’s response has been to assert that there should be ownership neutrality (no special rules for SOEs or for differences in economic systems). China has participated in Joint Statement Initiatives where it does not view itself as targeted including e-commerce, domestic services regulation, investment for development, SMSEs, etc. China is supportive of restoration of the Appellate Body. On S&DT, China does not agree to a change in classification of Members but has agreed to take on responsibilities that it views as consistent with its level of development.

Observations

The above review is undoubtedly incomplete and doesn’t include the discussion during the question and answer portion., but hopefully provides enough of a summary to show large areas of agreement and some of caution between the U.S. and the EU. Both the EU and the US (under the Biden Administration) are putting a lot of focus on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and both are interested in supporting global distribution of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics through COVAX, though there are short term issues in terms of supplies for national needs for both the U.S. and EU.

In general, the two U.S. panelists agreed with Ms. Weyand that there are areas where cooperation between the U.S. and the EU is possible and viewed the revised EC trade policy paper as helpful, particularly in terms of perceived movement by the EU on dispute settlement. Mr. Gao’s comments show that any reform will not likely be easy or quick because of the large differences in views of existing Members and the challenges posed by China’s economic system to global commerce since consensus decision making permits China to effectively derail multilateral solutions and it can opt not to participate in plurilaterals that it views as not in its interests.

While the U.S. and EU have each articulated the need to have unilateral response capabilities if solutions can’t be found through the WTO or bilaterally, the EU position (and likely Biden Administration position) is that cooperation should be sought between the U.S., EU and possibly others before unilateral actions are taken to permit coordination.

Much of the forward movement at the WTO on new rules is likely to be through plurilateral deals. The JSIs are generating most of the energy at the moment. India and South Africa have submitted a paper arguing that such plurilaterals area not proper under the WTO or require consensus (which doesn’t exist) to be included within the WTO. 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/. Ms. Weyand’s position was that the WTO will need to find ways to incorporate the plurilaterals into the WTO or action will happen outside of the WTO which cannot be beneficial to the WTO. In a post in recent days, I have argued that the U.S. should joint the JSIs that it is not a party to. See March 9, 2021, The Biden Administration should join the Joint Statement Initiatives that it is not presently party to, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/09/biden-administration-should-join-the-joint-statement-initiatives-that-it-is-not-presently-part-to/. The new Director-General has also put significant emphasis for obtaining forward movement in the JSIs. So despite the current importance of the JSIs, there are challenges to how much the U.S. and EU can achieve through plurilaterals within the WTO without changes to the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO, and Members will be divided on having WTO plurilaterals where benefits are limited to the parties vs. all Members (i.e., non-MFN, but open for later membership of non-participants).

On Dispute Settlement, the EU has stated that it understands the long-standing U.S. concerns that are bipartisan and reflected both in the Biden Administration and in Congress. While Ms. Weyand’s view is that the U.S. must signal that it accepts a two-tier, binding, independent dispute settlement system early for negotiations to move forward, the comments of Thomas Graham and the paper by Amb. Shea suggest that such an early commitment may be inappropriate. This would be true if the underlying problems laid out over the last years by the U.S. cannot be rectified satisfactorily under such a system — currently unknown as negotiations haven’t taken place.

Since the problems for the U.S. and others with the Appellate Body flow in part from an ineffective mechanism for Members to correct Appellate Body errors (i.e., the negotiating a clarification and/or Ministerial Conference/General Council adoption of an interpretation (Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO Art. IX:2)), reform of the dispute settlement will likely exceed review of the Dispute Settlement Understanding and procedures.

Ms. Hillman has suggested and Mr. Graham has supported Ms. Hillman’s proposal for a separate process for trade remedy or trade defense cases in light of the large number of cases in the area where there has been longstanding disagreement on Appellate Body decisions and because of the failure of the Appellate Body to respect Art. 17.6(ii) of the Antidumping Agreement.

In earlier posts, I had suggested some modifications to Amb. Walker’s 2019 draft General Council Decision that (1) would interpret both DSU Art. 3.2 and 19.2 and possibly deal with the tension Mr. Graham reviewed in his comment and that have led to much of the overreach problem; (2) would address ADA Art. 17.6(ii); and (3) would deal with past erroneous decisions. See July 12, 2020, WTO Appellate Body reform – revisiting thoughts on how to address U.S. concerns, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/07/12/wtos-appellate-body-reform-revisiting-thoughts-on-how-to-address-u-s-concerns/ (relevant section copied below; modifications are in bold and underlined).

‘Overreach’

As provided in Articles 3.2 and 19.2 of the DSU, findings and recommendations of Panels and the Appellate Body and recommendations and rulings of the DSB cannot add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in the covered agreements.   In a large number of Panel and Appellate Body reports, one or more parties and/or third parties have raised concerns about the Panel or Appellate Body adding to or diminishing the rights and obligations contrary to Articles 3.2 or 19.2 of the DSU.

To clarify situations where rights and obligations are being added to or diminished, Panels and the Appellate Body will not fill gaps in agreements, construe silence to indicate obligations or construe ambiguities in language of existing agreements to require a particular construction.  Any such actions by a Panel or by the Appellate Body is inconsistent with Articles 3.2 and 19.2 of the DSU.

Any party to an Appellate Body report that raised at the DSB meeting considering adoption of the Appellate Body report concerns about the creation of rights or obligations inconsistent with Articles 3.2 or 19.2, will have 90 days from the adoption of this General Council decision to request a review of the Appellate Body decision.  Such request will be for the limited purpose of having the Appellate Body determine whether on the specific issues raised where the party complained of creating rights or obligations the clarification of meaning provided in this General Council decision would result in a changed decision on the particular issue.  The Appellate Body will render decisions on all such requests within 90 days and will accept no additional briefing or argument from parties.  Where the report would have been different on one or more particular issues, it is sufficient for the Appellate Body to so indicate.  Where the same decision on an issue would have been made, the Appellate Body shall provide a detailed explanation.      

Panels and the Appellate Body shall interpret provisions of the Agreement on Implementation of Article VI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (“antidumping agreement”) in accordance with Article 17.6(ii) of that Agreement.  Any party to an Appellate Body report that raised at the DSB meeting considering adoption of the Appellate Body report that Article 17.6(ii) was not applied in interpreting the antidumping agreement, will have 90 days from the adoption of this General Council decision to request a review of the Appellate Body decision.  Such a request will be for the limited purpose of having the Appellate Body determine whether a different outcome on one or more issues would have resulted had the Appellate Body applied Article 17.6(ii)  of the antidumping agreement.  The Appellate Body will render decisions on all such requests within 90 days and will accept no additional briefing or argument from parties.  Where the report would have been different on one or more particular issues, it is sufficient for the Appellate Body to so indicate.  Where the same decision on an issue would have been made, the Appellate Body shall provide a detailed explanation.       

There presumably are many other ways (and perhaps better ways) to deal with these issues, but the above suggests that solutions could be found that would support a two-tiered system. Perhaps, the EU proposal for what it needs from the U.S. early should be supplemented by an understanding that any such commitment assumes ability to address U.S. concerns meaningfully with a two-tier, binding, independent dispute settlement system.

Conclusion

Ms. Weyand’s statement was that cooperation between the U.S. and the EU was a necessary but not sufficient condition to a successful effort at WTO reform. The European Commission in its revised trade policy paper demonstrated some movement from prior positions that had made resolution of matters such as the impasse on the Appellate Body unlikely. Similarly, the Biden Administration has been indicating on a range of issues including environmental sustainability movement that makes a united front between the U.S. and EU more likely. Actions reported in the press in recent weeks show movement by both the U.S. and the EU to improve bilateral relations in the trade sphere. All are very promising signals.

But the path forward is complicated by a lack of common objectives with many third countries, including China. Hence, the correctness of the observation that U.S.-EU cooperation is necessary but not sufficient.

Programs like today’s IIEL program provide a useful opportunity for large numbers of members of the public to gain a better understanding of the possible road forward and challenges to be faced. All of the panelists (and moderator) did an excellent job. It will be interesting to see how the WTO responds in the coming months if the U.S. and EU can in fact mount a united front on reform.