A number of WTO Members have submitted proposals for action by the WTO Membership to address the global trade challenges flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic including speeding recovery and minimizing future disruptions from later health challenges. Most proposals address what to do about export restrictions, simplifying import procedures and/or reducing import duties, and improved transparency of actions taken.
The Ottawa Group June 2020 Statement: Focusing Action on COVID-19
The latest contribution comes from the “Ottawa Group” and was submitted on June 16, 2020. June 2020 Statement of the Ottawa Group: Focusing Action on COVID-19, WT/GC/217. The Ottawa Group is a group of WTO Members who describe themselves as “champions of WTO reform”. The group consists of the following WTO Members — Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, European Union, Japan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland.
The Ottawa Group statement provides the following introduction followed by six areas for potential WTO action:
“The world continues to grapple with the profound human health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to these challenges, thinking has begun on trade policy actions that would support an inclusive, sustainable, and resilient recovery as well as what trade rules should be adapted or developed to guide collaborative policy responses to future global crises. In this context, the WTO must play an important role in helping ensure coordination and coherence between actions its members take. This will require initiative and engagement by WTO Members in order to be successful.
“In this environment, there is an opportunity for the Ottawa Group to provide leadership, critical thinking and analysis, as well as ideas and proposals on potential actions that the broader WTO membership could take. In order to make best use of resources, this paper sets out six areas where concrete actions could be taken.” Page 1
The six action items are identified with a discussion of why the area is important and what steps the Group views as important to take. The Ottawa Group recommendations are summarized at the end of the communication (pages 4-5):
“Action Item 1: Transparency and Withdrawal of Trade-Restrictive Measures
“Action Point: Ministers instruct officials to: 1) ensure any measures introduced in response to COVID-19 are promptly notified in accordance with relevant WTO requirements; 2) support efforts by the WTO Secretariat to collect and share information and best practices on trade-related measures taken in response to COVID-19 5/; 3) discuss the principle of ‘targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary and consistent with WTO rules’; and 4) lead by example and withdraw or end any trade restrictive measures introduced in response to COVID-19 as quickly as possible.
“5/ Including by: (a) returning to the quarterly cycle of trade monitoring reports as during the financial crisis; and (b) including trade-related economic support measures in the trade monitoring reports and (c) and to the extent possible, making a technical assessment of members’ trade-related economic support measures in reaction to COVID-19.
“Action Item 2: Keeping Open and Predictable Trade in Agricultural and Agri-Food Products
“Action Point: Ministers instruct officials to: 1) engage in ongoing discussions on the fulfilment of joint declarations on maintaining predictable and open agriculture trade; 2) lead by example, and withdraw or end any emergency measures introduced in response to COVID-19 that may adversely affect trade in agriculture as quickly as possible; and 3) advance analysis and consideration on what steps WTO Members could take to continue improving agriculture trade based on the lessons learned from COVID-19 to ensure that future crises will not undermine trade, food security, and the stability of agricultural markets in the long-term.
“Action Item 3: E-commerce
“Action Point: Ministers instruct officials to prioritize and accelerate work on the Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce, including through informal and virtual discussions, ahead of the rescheduled MC12 in 2021, including by the development of a consolidated negotiating text by the end of 2020 at the latest. In this regard, we will support the efforts of the co-convenors.
“Action Item 4: Trade Facilitation – Use of Information Technology and Streamlined Procedures
“Action Point: Ministers instruct officials to identify ways to take full advantage of the opportunities for trade facilitation in the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and to promote best practices for the implementation of the TFA. This includes how the adoption of digital solutions can support the movement of essential goods across borders as smoothly as possible.
“Action Item 5: Initiative on Medical Supplies
“Action Point: Ministers instruct officials to advance analysis and consideration in order to identify what steps WTO Members could take to facilitate trade in medical supplies to help ensure that the world is better positioned to deal with future health emergencies and to help ensure that versatile, diversified and resilient supply chains exist that allow all members access to vital medical supplies. This work should include analysis of the objectives and effects of policies affecting trade of medical supplies in response to the current pandemic and support for international organizations, including the WTO, in analyzing the potential impacts and outcomes of measures and recommending policies.
“Action Item 6: Deepen Engagement with Stakeholders
“Action Point: Ministers instruct officials to explore how best to pursue intensified engagement with stakeholders in order to better inform policymaking.”
The Ottawa Group proposals include topics not addressed in other proposals, such as the importance of prioritizing conclusion of the e-commerce joint statement initiative. During the pandemic, the critical importance of e-commerce to and expanded use by many businesses and consumers has reduced the damage to economies and to global trade. All Ottawa Group members are participating in the ongoing e-commerce talks, talks involving 84 countries or territories.
On issues like export restraints, the Ottawa Group has some positive ideas while reflecting the reality that some Ottawa Group members have used export restraints on medical goods during the pandemic. The idea of giving definition to the terms “targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary and consistent with WTO rules” could be useful for administrations to be able to evaluate intended actions. However, the spread of a pandemic such as COVID-19 and internal political pressures to help one’s own population will render any such clarifications of marginal actual assistance if the underlying challenge of global supply/demand imbalance is not addressed on an ongoing basis.
As has been seen in agricultural goods, increasing information on global supplies both reduces the likelihood of countries imposing export restraints and gives trading partners greater leverage in pushing for roll backs of export restraints imposed by individual countries where there is no actual shortage. The Ottawa Group’s recommendations on agricultural goods reflects that the ability to disarm restrictions where shortages do not in fact exist.
The Ottawa Group submission from June 16 is embedded below.
EU’s June 11, 2020 Concept Paper, Trade in Healthcare Products
Some WTO Members, including Ottawa Group member countries, have taken unilateral action to liberalize trade in medical goods by reducing tariffs (at least temporarily) and by streamlining entry of medical goods needed for handling the pandemic. Some members, like the EU, have suggested creating an expanded medical goods duty-free agreement to go beyond the 1995 pharmaceutical agreement. For example, in a concept paper of 11 June 2020 entitled Trade in Healthcare Products, the EU, inter alia, provides in the Annex (pages 9-14) a list of goods that WTO Members could consider for total duty elimination. https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2020/june/tradoc_158776.pdf The EU notes in a footnote that its concept paper “is meant to contribute to an exploratory discussion on a possible initiative to facilitate trade in healthcare products and is without prejudice to the EU’s position in potential negotiations.” Page 1 footnote 1.
The EU concept paper covers a number of other areas besides tariff eliminations, but for purposes of this note, the discussion will be limited to the product coverage for possible duty elimination. The EU provides a list of 152 6-digit HS categories in its Annex. At the six-digit level, import categories may cover many products not relevant to a particular pandemic, but the six-digit HS level is the most fragmented level of harmonization provided by the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding Systems. Interestingly the EU Annex does not cover all products identified by the World Customs Organization and World Health Organization as relevant to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, there are thirty products (with accompanying HS numbers that are in the WCO list that are not in the EU proposed Annex. See World Customs Organization Prepared jointly with the World Health Organization, HS classification reference for Covid-19 medical supplies, 2.1 Edition, http://www.wcoomd.org/-/media/wco/public/global/pdf/topics/nomenclature/covid_19/hs-classification-reference_2_1-24_4_20_en.pdf?la=en.
Specifically, under the WCO’s Section II dealing with face and eye protection, there are two face and eye protection products which are not part of the EU list (HS 9004.90 and 3926.90); four of five glove categories are not in the EU list (HS 3926.20, 4015.19, 6116.10, 6216.00); and eight of nine of the other products are not in the EU list (HS 6505.00, 3926.20, 4015.90 and 4818.50, 6210.40, 6210.40, 6210.50, 6210.50).
Similarly, in Section III, disinfectants and sterilisation products, two products in the WCO list are not covered by the EU (HS 2207.10, 2208.90).
In Section IV, oxygen therapy equipment and pulse oximeters, there is one product in the WCO list not covered by the EU Annex (HS 9026.80).
In Section V, other medical devices and equipment, the EU Annex doesn’t cover three products covered by the WCO list (HS 8413.19, 9028.20, 7324.90).
In Section VI, other medical consumables, there are four products shown in the WCO list that are not part of the EU Annex (HS 2804.40, 3923.29, 3926.90, 3926.90).
Section VII of the WCO list covers vehicles; with the exception of wheelchairs (which are covered by the EU Annex), the other three WCO products are not covered — ambulances, mobile clinic vehicles, mobile radiological vehicles (HS 8703, 8705.90, 8705.90).
Finally, in the WCO’s Section VIII, other products, three of four products in the WCO list are not covered by the EU Annex (HS 8421.39, 7311.00, 7613.00).
Because the WCO/WHO list reflects items needed by countries dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear what the logic is of not including such items in a proposed duty-free list compiled by the EU. Many of the items not included in the EU Annex (e.g., gloves, face shields, etc.) would be needed in addressing the current as well as future pandemics. If there is an effort to seek a duty-free agreement on medical goods, presumably the list will change from that put forward by the EU to be more comprehensive.
While the United States under the Trump Administration is not likely to enter into an agreement to eliminate tariffs on medical goods while the pandemic is afoot (as indicated by Amb. Lighthizer), the reality is that nearly all of the goods in the EU Annex are already duty free in the United States. Specifcally, 135 of the 152 6-digit HS items are duty free (Column 1 rate) in the U.S. in 2020. That is 88.8% of the HS categories. On a dollar value basis, 98.4% of imports into the U.S. during 2019 of products in the EU Annex are under HS numbers that are duty free. Of the remaining 1.6% of imports, a large part of the imports would be duty free under an FTA or GSP or other preferential program. Imports from China, some of which may be subject to supplemental duties flowing from the Section 301 investigation and resulting additional tariffs on Chinese goods, are 6.2% of total imports and some of those goods, if covered by additional duties, are subject to existing or potential exclusions.
Stated differently, should there be an effort to do a sectoral duty free agreement, in considering whether there is a critical mass, sponsors should be evaluating the existing tariff structures of non-participants.
The EU Concept Paper and the WCO list are embedded below.
Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff’s Jun 17 speech, Pandemic underlines need to improve trading system’s relevance and resilience
This past week, Deputy Director-General Wolff spoke at a Think20 virtual panel on Policy Recommendations for a Post-COVID 19 World. DDG Wolff reviewed both actions that the WTO has taken (transparency on actions taken by Members; developing a trade forecast; providing a forum for members to share proposals and consider collective action) and proposals that had been put forward by Members. See https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_18jun20_e.htm.
DDG Wolff identified two imperatives — “where the current rules are least prescriptive, they should be strengthened”; “where collective action would be helpful it should occur.” He then reviews WTO Members who have put forward proposals (Korea, Canada, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Ottawa Group, the Cairns Group) and provided his summary of some of the suggestions made:
“Some specific suggestions that have been made include the following:
” A major effort can be undertaken to increase transparency. Member notifications can be supplemented by enhanced monitoring and reporting of measures by the Secretariat.
“There is little guidance in the WTO rules as to the appropriate use of export controls where it is felt that there exists short supply. Further guidance could be crafted. Sometimes the existence of extensive policy space is contrary to the common interests of all.
“Government interventions to procure needed supplies reduce the scope for market forces to determine competitive outcomes. A number of the practices witnessed in the last three months in response to the pandemic are not explicitly regulated by the current WTO rules. Included under this heading would be subsidization conditioned on supplying the domestic market, and pre-emptive government purchasing and investment. Additional disciplines could be considered.
“Leaving the allocation of scarce necessities solely to market forces may also not be a completely satisfactory alternative if the poorest countries are priced out of participation.
“Consideration can be given to agreeing, as in the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, to require that a country planning to impose an export restriction consider the effect on others of applying the measure.
“Additional provisions could provide for prior notice before export restrictions are put into place and a commitment to engage in timely consultations.
“Consideration can be given to including in any restrictions a sunset clause and providing for a roll-back of current trade restrictions.
“Multilaterally-agreed guidance could be given for the sharing of scarce medical supplies, including vaccines.
“Concerted efforts could be made to have relevant tariff liberalization, not just for medical goods, equipment and pharmaceuticals, but more broadly.
“Consideration can be given to creating, a Members’ Emergency Task Force or other mechanism to flesh out options for consideration by Members.
“Where options are devised by groups of Members, an effort and process are needed to gain broader Member support for their recommendations and to assure implementation of concrete steps forward.
“A Long-Range Policy Planning Network for the Multilateral Trading System could be created. There is insufficient attention paid to assessing the future needs of the multilateral trading system, in part due to the daily need to deal with current challenges.
“For the recovery, there are at least three immediately identifiable ways
in which the multilateral trading system can contribute. Consideration
can be given to:
“Lowering the costs of trade by lowering tariffs and other impediments to trade broadly;
“Engaging in a collective effort to accelerate the implementation of
the Trade Facilitation Agreement, and
“Working with international financial institutions and banks to
foster the restoration of trade finance.”
A broad array of suggestions have been made at the WTO as can be seen. The challenge, of course, is in generating momentum for group action. If the major players are not pulling in the same direction, it is hard to see how that momentum will be generated. Typically times of crisis create opportunities for bold action. Is today’s crisis such an opportunity considering the significantly different perspectives of China, the EU and the U.S.?
Many developing countries (and those who claim developing status at the WTO) typically have the highest tariffs and can be motivated for short-term tariff action on specific goods (as this pandemic has demonstrated), but have not shown a willingness to lead on tariff liberalization when developed countries typically have very low tariff levels already. Is the pandemic a reason for such countries to rethink their contribution to the global trading system?
A number of the proposals go to the functioning of the WTO and its governance. Considering the desire by many for broader reform but with significant differences in what type of reforms are appropriate, can the proposals identified generate consensus support in the coming months?
With the economic damage to the world’s economies much larger than originally projected, certainly there has never been a greater need for collective action to minimize human health and economic costs from the pandemic and to speed economic recovery. The coming months will show whether the great divides among the majors can be bridged for the good of all.