EU Amb. Machado

“No Quick Fixes for WTO Dispute Settlement Reform” — a skeptical view by the former Deputy USTR of the EU’s willingness to address core U.S. concerns

In yesterday’s post, I reviewed a program hosted by Georgetown Law’s Institute for International Economic Law that looked at opportunities for transatlantic cooperation in WTO reform. See March 10, 2021, 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, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/10/todays-webinar-hosted-by-georgetown-laws-institute-for-international-economic-law-rethinking-the-wto-opportunity-for-transatlantic-cooperation-many-areas-for-likely-cooperation-some-impo/. The focus of the program was the mid-February EC Trade Policy Review paper and Annex on WTO Reform. While there was agreement that there were many areas of possible U.S.-EC cooperation in pursuing WTO reform, Thomas Graham, a former Appellate Body Member and Chair, raised a caution about how quickly meaningful reform of the WTO dispute settlement system could be achieved. He referenced a commentary published by CSIS from Amb. Dennis Shea, the former U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO during the Trump Administration. See Amb. Dennis Shea, No Quick Fixes for WTO Dispute Settlement Reform, March 9, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/no-quick-fixes-wto-dispute-settlement-reform.

Ambassador Shea’s commentary is worth separate review. Amb. Shea starts by sharing his experience in 2018 as the new U.S. ambassador to the WTO in pressing the EU on whether they shared U.S. concerns about overreach and other problems in the Appellate Body’s functioning and being told that the EU shared none of the U.S. concerns. He then contrasts that position with the position staked out in the EC’s Trade Policy Review paper where there is a recognition that the U.S. “has raised ‘a number of valid concerns'”. The point of Amb. Shea’s initial comments is both to show skepticism as to whether the EU change of position is real and to point out comments by the EU which suggests a lack of understanding of the U.S. concerns or which indicate needed reversal by the EU of a number of positions taken in the past. Amb. Shea urges the Biden Administration not to take up negotiations before the U.S. is able to explore with the EU and others “why the Appellate Body felt free to overreach and why the WTO membership allowed it to occur for so long. A shared diagnosis of the problem will help lead to more durable solutions, including a possible rethinking of the dispute settlement system itself.” This is, of course, the position that Amb. Shea,for the Trump Administration, took consistently at the WTO during his tenure there.

There is little doubt that many WTO Members have been looking at very limited modifications to the WTO dispute settlement system as being adequate to address longstanding U.S. concerns — an approach repeatedly rejected by the prior Administration and unlikely to result in forward progress with the Biden Administration.

The Appellate Body was a new concept added at the end of the Uruguay Round. The binding nature of dispute settlement with an Appellate Body was premised on a limited role for the Appellate Body and assumed an ability of WTO Members to correct erroneous decisions through either negotiations or through interpretations adopted by the Ministerial Conference or the General Council. After 25 years, it is clear that the checks on the dispute settlement system that are included in the WTO Agreements have not functioned as intended or functioned at all. Coupled with the collapse of the negotiating function more broadly, the reality has been a dispute settlement system that has often made up rights and obligations on the fly. Why WTO Members have been ok with that usurpation of sovereign states’ right to limit obligations to those negotiated and agreed to is the fundamental question. It is at the heart of Amb. Shea’s commentary.

From some thirty years of traveling to Geneva, I have heard from nearly every major Member using the dispute settlement system that based on how the Appellate Body was operating, the Member believed it could obtain results through disputes that should be the subject of negotiations and that the Member knew had not been agreed by trading partners. Thus, obtaining rights without negotiations is certainly one of the reasons that many Members have accepted the actions of the Appellate Body that have exceeded its limited authority over time. There are undoubtedly other reasons. Understanding the reasons for Member acceptance of a dispute settlement system operating outside of its limited mandate presumably would be relevant to identifying solutions that would put dispute settlement back into its proper role and ensure errors can be addressed in fact, not just in theory.

Amb. Shea presents eight questions for European trade officials that raise some of the concerns the U.S. has and highlight where there have been significant differences in the positions staked out by the EU in prior cases from the statements in the EC Trade Policy Review paper.

The first question goes to the lack of precedent in WTO dispute settlement and whether the EU thus now recognizes that the Appellate Body erred when it mandated that panels follow Appellate Body reports “absent cogent reasons”. He also asks if the EU rejects “the view that the Appellate Body was vested with broad authority to develop ‘a coherent and predictable body of jurisprudence?'” The U.S. position has been that the dispute settlement process is intended to help the Members find a solution to a problem raised, and that the power to establish rights and obligations lies with the Members through negotiations.

The second question goes to the proper role of the Appellate Body — whether the role is limited to questions of law raised on appeal or extends to whether panels made an objective assessment of the facts under DSU Art. 11. The EU has supported the latter position in prior disputes which has often meant a relitigation of cases at the Appellate Body level.

The EU in its Trade Policy Review paper states that the 90-day deadline for Appellate Body reports should be “strictlly respected”. Because this is different than the position the EU exhibited during the first 25 years when the Appellate Body far exceeded 90 days on a regular basis, Amb. Shea in his third question asks “What has changed?” Problems with timeliness of reports exist both for the Appellate Body and for panels. The problem at the Appellate Body has been noteworthy because of early year compliance with the requirements and early outreach to disputants where 90 days couldn’t be met but an evolution of the Appellate Body’s approach to where extensions were taken without consultations with the disputants.

On the topic of “overreach” by the Appellate Body, Amb. Shea asks whether the EU agrees with the U.S. on cases other than the Appellate Body’s interpretation of “public body’ and if yes, how would the EU propose correcting these other prior rulings? (Question 4). Questions 5 and 6 address particular areas of concern (additional requirements in safeguard cases; the prohibition created by the Appellate Body on “zeroing” in antidumping duty investigations). As I have raised in prior posts, there will not be a resolution of the impasse on the Appellate Body until the problem of overreach is addressed and correction of past overreach has been achieved. While there has been overreach in areas besides trade defense agreements, the three examples raised in Questions 4-6 deal with major overreach problems in the subsidy/countervailing duty, safeguard and antidumping agreements.

Question 7 asks the EU if it agrees with the problems identified by former Appellate Body member Thomas Graham “including a ‘prevailing ethos’ to act like a court that was unaccountable to WTO members, an unjustified sense of infallibility, and an excessive degree of control exercised by its staff”. Mr. Graham at yesterday’s IIEL program argued for the need for greater accountability and the need for reexamining the structure of the dispute settlement — presumably addressing his prior observations on the problems of the Appellate Body. See March 10, 2021, 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, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/10/todays-webinar-hosted-by-georgetown-laws-institute-for-international-economic-law-rethinking-the-wto-opportunity-for-transatlantic-cooperation-many-areas-for-likely-cooperation-some-impo/. The U.S.’s position has been that the Appellate Body is not a court. Indeed, the EU has agreed that the Appellate Body is not a court. See October 1, 2020:  Thoughts on the Geneva Trade Week session entitled “WTO Dispute Settlement – Where Do We Stand?”, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/10/01/thoughts-on-the-geneva-trade-week-session-entitled-wto-dispute-settlement-where-do-we-stand/ (EU Amb. Machado’s summary (as compiled by me) included that “The EU agrees that panels and the Appellate Body are not courts and that panelists and AB members are not judges. It is the role of WTO Members, not adjudicators, to establish new rules.”). The question in essence goes to how does reform of the dispute settlement system restore the very limited role panels and any second tier review have in helping parties find a solution to a dispute between Members.

Amb. Shea’s last question acknowledges two of the demands of the EU — binding decisions independently reached. But he questions the value of a two-tier system noting that over 25 years it has often been the U.S. view that panels reached the correct result and the Appellate Body the incorrect result. “Shouldn’t the focus be on reforming the WTO dispute settlement system (perhaps with an updated appellate review mechanism) rather than ‘reconstituting’ the Appellate Body?” Amb. Shea’s question seems to stress the institutional problems that the Appellate Body has developed over 25 years and the potential challenges to actually reforming the Appellate Body. But Amb. Shea doesn’t say a second-tier couldn’t work, just that Members should not be locked into restoring the Appellate Body as such.

Conclusions

USTR under the Trump Administration did an exceptional job of laying out U.S. concerns with the WTO Appellate Body over a 2-3 year period. Amb. Shea’s commentary reflects the fact that during the Trump Administration (and before), the EU’s positions on a host of issues important to the proper functioning of the dispute settlement system differed from those of the United States.

The EC’s Trade Policy Review paper and Annex on WTO Reform is an important document, including by showing movement by the EU on some issues of concern to the U.S. in the dispute settlement arena. Amb. Shea’s commentary highlights some of the issues that need to be resolved if there is to be a meeting of the minds between the U.S. and EU on Appellate Body reform, including addressing overreach including on past Appellate Body reports. As Mr. Graham reviewed yesterday and as Amb. Shea reviews in his question 7, reform includes the need for greater accountability of those involved. It also involves a significant contraction in the role any second-tier review handles.

While the approach advocated by Amb. Shea certainly has merit (gain an understanding of “why” the Appellate Body exceeded its authority and Members accepted such action before starting negotiations), it also is possible for the U.S. to start laying out reform needs realizing that some such reforms may go beyond the DSU and operating procedures of the Appellate Body to ensure meaningful checks and balances through the Members (currently hypothetically through Ministerial Conferences or the General Council) or through creating a different appeal mechanism for legal questions. But as Mr. Graham indicated yesterday, dispute settlement will not happen quickly and will be challenging based on the depth of the problems and the need for structural changes and changes in operating procedures as well as addressing the substantive needs.

While there seemed to be different views within the Trump Administration on whether dispute settlement should be binding, that is not the view of Amb. Shea in his commentary nor is it historically the view of the U.S. Congress (as long as Members have the authority to not implement an adverse decision and rather pay compensation or suffer retaliation) or prior Administrations (including the Trump Administration in its handling of disputes). While it is not known as yet the position of the Biden Administration, it is likely that a system that is binding and independent should be acceptable if properly limited and with meaningful crosschecks. I don’t know that there will be objections to a two-tier process, although the reforms needed may make the resulting second-tier look very different from the Appellate Body.

Reform of the dispute settlement system and restoration of a two-tier review is important to most WTO Members. Having focused Members attention on the importance of reform, the Trump Administration has handed off dispute settlement reform to the Biden Administration with WTO Members finally understanding that the longstanding concerns of the United States need to be addressed. The EC Trade Policy Review paper and Annex on WTO Reform shows movement by the EU on some issues of importance to the U.S. While the road forward is likely to be complicated and long, hopefully the Biden Administration will help the process move forward by identifying the array of changes that are needed in the coming months.