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WTO Accessions — perhaps the most valuable benefit for Members in the first 25 years of the WTO’s existence

Much has been written about the challenges facing the World Trade Organization twenty-five years after its birth at the beginning of 1995.

The Appellate Body (“AB”) has ceased functioning with the United States blocking the appointment of new AB members based on longstanding problems with the Dispute Settlement system that have not been addressed. There are fundamental differences among major Members in what the proper role of the dispute settlement system is. Because the AB’s view of its role has differed from that of at least some of the Members, many delegations have opted to litigate instead of negotiate on issues which are not covered by the actual language of existing agreements.

The negotiating function of the WTO has had limited success in the first 25 years of the WTO reflecting deep differences among Members in priorities and the core function of the WTO. The inability to update rules or develop new rules to address 21st century commercial realities has called into question the ongoing relevance of the organization Members have failed to honor agreement directions for periodic liberalization updates in agriculture and services trade. Members have also taken decades to tackle issues of pressing time sensitivity, such as fisheries subsidies.

And there are problems in the timeliness and completeness of notifications required by many agreements and the quality of the work of many of the Committees.

A bright spot for an organization in trouble has been the success of bringing additional countries and territories into the organization. Of the 164 members at present, 36 have joined since the WTO opened in 1995 and some 23 countries or territories are in the accession process at the moment. Some 98% of global trade is now covered by WTO Members. While there are many reasons for countries or territories to join the WTO, including integrating into the global economy and improving the competitiveness of the economy (Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff describes the benefits of accession as being a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth), there is no doubt that accessions are of benefit to the global trading system and bring the benefits of liberalization in the acceding country or territory to the existing WTO membership. Indeed, commitments of acceding Members in terms of tariff liberalization and other obligations typically are far higher than the commitments of existing Members at the same economic stage of development. Yet, accession is of great benefit to acceding countries. See WTO press release, 8 November 2020, DDG Wolff: WTO accession is a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_06nov20_e.htm. DDG Wolff, in speaking to Arab countries in the accession process made the following comments:

“Furthermore, during the last eight months, the world has experienced unprecedented levels of disruptions in people’s daily lives and their economic activities due to Covid-19. The world is not near the end of this crisis. Despite these challenging times, trade has played a key role in addressing local shortages of food, medical supplies and other essentials during the pandemic.

“Trade will have to play an even greater role in supporting recovery of the global economy going forward. In this context, we should recognise the important role played by Saudi Arabia in steering the G20 during this difficult year, urging collective and multilateral cooperation. The Riyadh Initiative is a praiseworthy effort endorsed by the G20 nations.

“The Arab region has not escaped the dire economic consequences of this pandemic. For some, the steep fall in oil prices has aggravated existing problems. A crisis, however, also presents opportunities for closer international cooperation to limit the harm from the pandemic and to spur the recovery.

“These issues demonstrate that more, not less, global and regional trade integration is required. Integration into the world economy goes hand in hand with necessary domestic reforms. This is where WTO accession makes particularly valuable contributions. Those engaged in the reform-driven accession process are likely to experience a quicker recovery and greater resilience in the future.

“Based on evidence from the 36 accessions which have been successfully completed, the WTO accession process has served as an effective external anchor for domestic reforms, acting as a catalyst in realizing the potential of their economies. According to the last WTO Director-General’s Annual Report on WTO Accessions, Article XII Members have registered higher growth rates of GDP and trade (exports and imports), as well as increased flows of inward FDI stocks, in the years following their accession compared to the rest of the world. These results indicate that integrated, open economies tend to grow faster. In addition, by signalling a government’s commitment to international rules, WTO membership appears to also encourage the inflow of foreign investment.

“The accession process has been used by resource-based countries to diversify their economies. Economic diversification is one of the major priorities for the governments in the Arab region. Our 2016 study examined whether countries’ export structures became more diversified after gaining WTO membership. This was true for about half of the recently acceded
Members, which increased the number of exported products, measured in HS chapters, accounting for more than 60% of their exports after accession. This was achieved often through rebranding their economies with WTO membership and attracting increased FDI.”

From 1995-2016, the thirty-six countries or territories that joined the WTO included many of the major economies that were not original Members of the WTO. These included China, Chinese Taipei, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. The other countries or territories who have joined represent a wide cross-section of geographic regions and levels of development: Ecuador, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Panama, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Jordan, Georgia, Albania, Oman, Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova, Armenia, North Macedonia, Nepal, Cambodia, Tonga, Cabo Verde, Montenegro, Samoa, Vanuatu, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Tajikistan, Yemen, Seychelles, Kazakhstan, Liberia, and Afghanistan. No accessions have been completed since 2016.

The twenty-three countries and territories that are in the process of accession often are countries or territories that have suffered from years of conflict. This has led the WTO to host the first “Trade for Peace Week” from November 30-December 4, 2020. See WTO press release, 25 November 2020, WTO to host first Trade for Peace Week, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/acc_25nov20_e.htm.

“In announcing the Trade for Peace Week, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff noted: ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes international trade as an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction that contributes to the promotion of sustainable development. This in turn can facilitate building and maintaining peace. The connection between trade and peace is the raison d’être for the creation of the rules-based multilateral trading system that led to economic recovery and prosperity after the devastation from World War II.’

“Currently, 23 countries are in the process of joining the WTO, and over a half of them suffer from a fragile situation from years of conflicts. Launched in 2017, the Trade for Peace initiative aims to assist fragile and conflict-affected (FCA) countries through WTO accession, with the emphasis on institution building based on the principles of non-discrimination, predictability, transparency and the rule of law. Based on experiences of former FAC countries, WTO accession can help set the conditions to move out of a state of fragility or conflict into a state of stability, economic well-being and peace.”

There are ten events this week. The public can register to participate in the virtual panels. See WTO Accessions, Trade for Peace Week, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/acc_e/t4peace2020_e.htm.

DDG Wolff spoke at one of today’s event and his comments are embedded below. See WTO press release, November 30, 2020, DDG Alan Wolff – DDG Wolff calls for more structured WTO cooperation with humanitarian and peace communities, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_30nov20_e.htm.

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The twenty-three countries and territories in the process of accession include: Algeria, Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Belarus, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Comoros, Curacao, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanese Republic, Libya, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Timor-Leste, and Uzbekistan.

Conclusion

The genesis for the GATT and the other Bretton Woods institutions was a desire to provide an infrastructure and global rules to minimize the likelihood of future world wars. Cooperation, collaboration and integration would all reduce the likelihood of global conflict.

The WTO provides the opportunity for countries or territories struggling to escape violence to embark on a path of hope. That is a core mission of the WTO today just as it was for the GATT in the late 1940s.

Moreover, the record over the first twenty-five years of the WTO’s existence has been that those countries and territories who take the challenging steps to become Members of the WTO improve their economies and speed growth, development and foreign direct investment. Accessions also offer real improvements in market access for existing WTO Members. A true win-win situation.

For an organization struggling to maintain relevance amidst deep divisions among Members who seem to have lost the consensus on the core purpose of the organization, the pilgrimage of non-member countries and territories to join the organization is a beacon of hope. Serious reforms and updating of the rule book are desperately needed for a better functioning system where outcomes are based on underlying economic strengths and not the interference of governments. A willingness of Members to refocus on what the purpose of the WTO is in fact and to be supporters of contributing to the maximum of one’s ability will be key to forward movement. Inspiration can be drawn from the efforts of non-members to join.

WTO remaining candidates for the Director-General position — Questions and Answers from the July 15 and 16 meetings with the General Council

The third round of consultations with WTO Members on which of the two remaining candidates is preferred and hence may be the most likely to obtain consensus to become the next Director-General gets started next Monday, October 19 and ends on October 27.

Both Minister Yoo of Korea and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria are in the process of seeking support from WTO Members and have the full support of their governments which are making calls and sending letters to government officials in many of the WTO Members.

Minister Yoo is back in Europe seeking support in this third round (she and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala both received preferences from the EU in the second round). Press reports indicate that China is believed to be supporting Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, and Japan is understood to have concerns with both candidates. Thus, Minister Yoo is working to bolster support in other regions of the world to supplement what is assumed to be only partial support within Asia.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has received the support from Kenya after Kenya’s candidate did not advance to the third round. It is not clear whether she will receive support from all African Members of the WTO, although Kenya’s action is obviously an imortant positive for her.

So the next eleven days will be an active time as each of the remaining candidates seeks support in the final round of consultations from Members in different geographical areas as well as in different categories (developed, developing and least developed countries).

One source of information about the candidates that hasn’t been available to the public but is now available is the questions and answers provided to the General Council meetings with each candidate on July 15 (Dr. Okonjo-Iweala) and July16 (Minister Yoo). While there were three days of meetings with the General Council to accommodate the eight candidates, the two remaining candidates appeared during the first two days. The Minutes of the Meeting of the General Council, 15-17 July 2020 are contained in WT/GC/M/185 (31 August 2020). The procedures for each candidate were reviewed by the General Council Chairman David Walker (New Zealand).

“Each candidate would be invited to make a brief presentation lasting no more than fifteen minutes. That would be followed by a question-and-answer period of no more than one hour and fifteen minutes. During the last five minutes of the question-and-answer period, each candidate would have the opportunity to make a concluding statement if she or he so wished.” (page 1, para. 1.5).

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s statement, questions asked, answers given and closing statement are in Annex 2 on pages 16-26. Minister Yoo Myung-hee’s statement, questions asked, answers given and closing statement are in Annex 5 on pages 51-60. The statements have previously been reviewed in my posts and are available on the WTO webpage.

Questions are picked randomly from Members who indicated an interest in asking questions. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala received questions during the meeting from nineteen Members with another thirty-nine Members having submitted their names to ask questions of her. Minister Yoo received questions during her meeting from seventeen Members with another forty-four Members having submitted their names to ask questions of her.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s questions came from Afghanistan, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, European Union, Paraguay, Estonia, Australia, Latvia, Guatemala, Japan, Mongolia, Brazil, and Malaysia. The questions dealt with a range of issues including the following sample:

  • The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on developing countries, LDCs and small vulnerable economies (SVEs).
  • How to ensure the benefits of open trade are distributed equitably?
  • What steps will you undertake to ensure a multilateral outcome at the next Ministerial?
  • Role of the Director-General (DG) in addressing lack of trust among Members.
  • Role of the DG in facilitating economic recovery and resilience.
  • What is necessary to restore functioning of a binding, two-step dispute settlement system in the WTO?
  • Do transparency and notification obligations need to be strengthened?
  • Focus in the first 100 days.
  • Your initial approach to the reform of the WTO.
  • What kind of approach and efforts would you like to make to advance the subject of e-commerce?
  • Role of plurilaterals in the WTO.
  • How to deal with the different views on special and differential treatment?
  • What are your plans relating to empowering women in the future WTO agenda?

Minister Yoo’s questions came from Guatemala, Belgium, United States, India, Germany, El Salvador, Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka, Spain, Qatar, Lithuania, Gabon, Botswana, China, Barbados, Malaysia, and Zimbabwe. The questions dealt with a range of issues including the following sample:

  • Do you have any proposal on how to overcome the current crisis?
  • How do you plan to include measures to respect sustainable trade in an agenda focused on free trade and trade liberalization?
  • In looking at interim arbitration agreement of EU and other countries, is it appropriate for WTO resources to be used for activities that go beyond what is contemplated by the DSU?
  • How to convince Members that the multilateral trading system is still best way forward over bilateral and plurilateral trading arrangements?
  • Is there a gap in the WTO rulebook with regard to level playing field issues such as subsidies, economic action by the State and competition?
  • Do you have a multilateral solution to issues like e-commerce which are being tackled in the Joint Statement Initiatives that would be of interest to a large number of Members?
  • WTO is lagging behind in pursuing the development dimension; what is the path forward?
  • Role of DG re fighting protectionism and unilateral measures.
  • How to strike a balance between public stockholding and food security and the avoidance of unnecessary trade restrictions?
  • What is your view on the Doha Development Agenda?
  • What role the WTO can play to help drive Africa’s integration agenda?
  • What is the most important issue to achieve results?

Both candidates gave extensive answers to the questions posed while avoiding staking out a position on any issue that is highly controversial within the WTO. The answers are worth reading in their entirety. As a result the minutes of the meeting are embedded below.

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Each candidate in their summing up at the end of her meeting with the General Council circled back to their prepared statement. Their short summing up statements are copied below.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (page 26):

“The nature of the questions that I have heard and the nature of the discussions give me hope. Members are clearly interested in a WTO that works, in a WTO that is different from what we have now, in a WTO that shows a different face to the world. I can see it and I can feel it. And if ever I am selected as Director-General, that gives me hope that there is a foundation to work on. Before coming in here, I have spoken to several Members, but I did not really know that. From listening to all of you and fielding your questions, I now know that there is a basis to work on. And I want to thank you for it.

“And I really want to end where I began. Trade is very important for a prosperous and a recovered world in the 21st century. The WTO is at the centre of this. A renewed WTO is a mission that we must all undertake, and we need every Member, regardless of economic size, to participate in this. If we want the world to know who we are as the WTO, we have to commit. Having listened to you, I hear the commitment and I want to thank you sincerely for that.”

Minister Yoo Myung-hee (page 60):

“I spent the past few days meeting with Ambassadors and delegates in Geneva. When I listen to your views, together with the questions today, it seems that there are diverse views and priorities of Members – whether it concerns the negotiations, how to pursue development objectives and special and differential treatment, the plurilaterals or restoring the Appellate Body function. So, how can we, a dynamic group of 164 Members with different social and economic environments, come to an agreement? This brings me back to my original message. We need to rebuild trust in the WTO. How? Amid these divergent and different views of Members, I would share the commitment and hope to restoring and revitalizing the WTO.

“This pandemic has forced us to reflect upon what is needed from the multilateral trading system. Despite the current challenges, I have a firm belief in the multilateral trading system and what we can actually achieve in the future if we put our heads together and also our hearts into it. We are embarking on a new journey towards a new chapter for the WTO. Building on the past twenty-five years, when we embark on the new journey for the next twenty-five years, I am ready to provide a new leadership that will harness all the frustrations but most importantly all the hopes from Members to make the WTO more relevant, resilient and responsive for the next twenty-five years and beyond.”

Conclusion

The process that WTO Members agreed on in 2002 to promote a process for finding a candidate for a new Director-General is cumbersome, time consuming and burdensome for candidates brave enough to put their hat in the ring. To date, the 2002 process has resulted in Members agreeing by consensus on a new Director-General (2005 and 2013). The process in 2020 has worked remarkably smoothly as well despite the deep divisions in the membership and the multiple-pronged crisis facing the organization.

The two finalists bring different backgrounds and skill sets to be considered by Members. Each started strong in the General Council meetings in mid-July as can be seen from their answers to questions posed, and each has continued to impress many Members in the subsequent months. There are political considerations in the selection process of the Director-General (just as in any major leadership position of an international organization). Both candidates are getting active support of their home governments. Fortunately, the membership has two qualified and very interesting candidates to consider. Whoever emerges as the candidate most likely to achieve consensus among the Members will still face the hurdle of whether any Member (or group of Members) will block the consensus. While that seems unlikely at the present time, one never knows.

Whoever becomes the next Director-General will face the daunting challenges of an organization with all three major functions not operating as needed, deep divisions among major players and among major groups. The lack of forward movement and the lack of trust among Members will weigh heavily on the new Director-General with a narrow window before the next Ministerial Conference likely to take place next June. It is remarkable that talented individuals with long histories of accomplishments would be willing to take on the problems the WTO is weighed down with at the present time. Hopefully, the next Director-General will be known in the next three weeks.