What are geographical indications? What do they mean for post-Brexit UK?

People’s views of geographical indications range from cherishing them as precious cultural heritage and commercial property, to annoyance and scorn. They are complicated. Every argument has a counter-argument

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“How was your Cornish pasty sir? And your lamb, madam? It was New Zealand lamb. Excellent. Would you like some dessert? A cheese plate? We have a new Tiroler Bergkäse from Austria. I also recommend a fine French or Swiss Gruyère. And we have a lovely Caerphilly. Or our chef’s favourite mature Cheddar. A selection? Of course. And to go with that? Would you like to stay with your Amarone della Valpolicella? An Armagnac? A perfect choice. And sir? More Evian. Coming right up.”
Which of these are geographical indications? Answer at the end. (Click the image to see it full size)

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 5, 2018 | FIRST PUBLISHED ON UK TRADE FORUM APRIL 3, 2018 | UPDATED MAY 7, 2018

JUMP TO
PART 1 BASICS
What are geographical indications (GIs)?
What do they apply to?
Are they always place names?
How do they relate to rules of origin?
Why protect them?
How much protection?

PART 2 POLICY
How are geographical indications protected?
What does the UK face with the EU?
What does the UK face with other countries?
What does the UK face in the WTO?
Some GI titbits

PART 3 WHAT THE WAITRESS SAID

Among the thousands of policy questions facing Britain after it leaves the EU is what its approach should be for geographical indications. These are names — like Melton Mowbray pork pies, Rutland bitter and Bordeaux wine — that are used to identify certain products. The UK’s policy will affect both its own and other countries’ names.

People’s views of geographical indications range from cherishing them as precious cultural heritage and commercial property, to annoyance and scorn.

What are they? And what are the decisions facing the UK? This is an attempt to explain them simply. It’s in two main parts with a small third part tacked on.

Part 1 is the basics. Part 2 looks beyond that at policy. Meanwhile the waitress above mentions 10 types of food and drink. How many are geographical indications? The answer is in Part 3 at the end.

More details can be found on the websites of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and World Trade Organization (WTO).

PART 1 BASICSBack to top
Photo by Lana Abie on Unsplash
Protection is not all the same: some products with geographical indications

What are geographical indications (GIs)?Back to top

They are names used to define both the origin and the quality, characteristics or reputation of products.

Origin is not enough. A cheese made around Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France cannot be called Roquefort unless it is blue, made from sheep’s milk and meets a number of other criteria.

What do they apply to?Back to top

The vast majority of geographical indications are on food and drink, particularly wines and spirits. This is because soil and climate conditions can contribute to the products’ specific qualities.

Some countries protect other types of products as well. For example “Native Shetland Wool” (agricultural but not food) in the UK, “Swiss” watches (non-agricultural) in Switzerland, and some types of carpets and other handicrafts around the world.

Thailand would even like a service to be protected — traditional Thai massage — but internationally geographical indications are only used with goods.

Are they always place names?Back to top

Usually the terms used are place names, but sometimes they are other words associated with specific regions.

For example basmati is a long-grain fragrant rice variety and not a geographical name. However, it is associated with the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan, although its status as a geographical indication is debated (the EU doesn’t recognise it) because it is grown elsewhere too.

How do they relate to rules of origin?Back to top

This has absolutely nothing to do with rules of origin, which are about customs procedures — determining whether a product can be called “made in” a certain country and therefore should qualify for duty-free trade or other special treatment under trade agreements.

Geographical indications are a type of intellectual property, a form of “branding”, along with copyright, trademarks and others, because the products’ characteristics are the result of production techniques as well as location.

Why protect them?Back to top

Protection is intended to benefit both consumers and producers. The EU speaks of ensuring a product is “authentic” (for consumers), and providing a marketing tool to give producers “legal protection against imitation or misuse of the product name”.

Under WTO rules, the objective is to avoid misleading the public and unfair competition.

How much protection?Back to top
Sparkling wine: when is it champagne and when not?
Sparkling wine: when is it champagne and when not?

The bottom line for the WTO’s 164 members (including the EU and UK) is what is required in its intellectual property agreement (known as TRIPS or Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). The agreement only sets minimum standards. It does not deal with individual names. How countries meet the standards and which names they protect is left up to them through their different legal systems.

The section on geographical indications is short. It has three parts, Articles 22, 23 and 24:

  • In general (Article 22), countries have to protect geographical indications to avoid misleading the public and avoid unfair competition. By this criterion, “Californian champagne” should be fine since consumers would be clear that this did not come from the Champagne region of France. But …
  • For wines and spirits (Article 23), protection is taken to a higher level — even if there is no danger of misleading the public or creating unfair competition. So “Californian champagne” is no longer valid. Except that …
  • There are a number of exceptions (in Article 24). These include if a term has become generic — cheddar cheese is clearly one case since it’s been made around the world for decades, if not longer. Also an exception is when the name was registered as a trademark before the WTO’s agreement was negotiated (“grandfathering”) — Parma ham has long been a trademark in Canada, an irritant for Italians who were unable to sell Prosciutto di Parma there until recently. The EU has waged a long-running and still unresolved battle with the US over the use of “Champagne”.

When the EU negotiates for its geographical indications to be protected in other countries, part of the effort is about reclaiming names that have become generic — or more vividly to “clawback” names that have been “usurped”. Feta cheese is one case. This 73-page document is what the EU and US have agreed for wines.

PART 2 POLICYBack to top
Gruyère, Switzerland
Gruyère is in Switzerland. Can France register a Gruyère cheese?

How are geographical indications protected?Back to top

The names are usually the property of groups of producers or regional or national authorities, not individual companies.

How they are protected depends on where, and this matters for the UK’s future relationships, such as how it seeks to have its own names protected abroad.

The European Union probably has the most detailed and sophisticated system. Stricter criteria apply to “protected designation of origin (PDO)” and only some products are eligible. A wider category is “protected geographical indications (PGI)”. A third, “traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG)”, emphasises the production method.

The EU’s database of wines contains over 1,700 EU geographical indications (some still being considered), and just over 1,000 from non-EU countries. Only five are British.

For spirits there are 270 geographical indications including some whose protection is being considered. Only four are non-EU. Two are British: Scotch whisky and Somerset cider brandy. Part-British is Irish whiskey made anywhere on the island of Ireland.

Watercress
British? The UK wants to protect ‘watercress’

For other products, there are almost 1,600 “registered”, “published” or “applied for” geographical indications from both EU and non-EU countries; 79 are British.

(See also this official UK list of names. Among the foods the UK wants to protect is “watercress”.)

At the other extreme used to be Norway. A few years ago, WTO members were asked to fill in a questionnaire with some examples of geographical indications they protected. Norway said it couldn’t be sure because it used consumer protection law rather than a register of names, meaning a term would have to be in a court case to know for certain.

It managed only one possibility. “‘Hardanger’ might be a protected name,” it suggested (page 80 here). Since then, Norway has brought its system much closer to the EU’s.

Some countries use specific geographical indications laws and registers. Some use consumer protection. In the US and many others protection is by trademarks and certification marks. There are even variations of approach within the EU. The UK told the WTO that it uses common law (“tort of passing off”) for some terms and trademark law for others, although fundamentally the UK is applying EU law. (See the annex in this now out-of-date WTO document.)

What does the UK face with the EU?Back to top

In theory, when the UK leaves the EU it will be free to decide how it protects geographical indications and which names to protect, so long as it complies with the WTO principles.

Will the UK move away from the EU’s near-obsession with geographical indications? It might not have too many wines, but it does have Scotch whisky and a lot of food products.

Its hand might also be forced by its future relationship with the EU. Geographical indications have always been a priority for the EU in its free trade negotiations and the EU has already demanded protection to continue in the UK after Brexit.

This is likely to mean the UK setting up its own lists of protected geographical indications with associated legislation.

What does the UK face with other countries?Back to top

Beyond the EU, the world of geographical indications has sometimes been described as a divide between old world countries, with traditional methods and products they want to protect, and the new world whose immigrant populations brought those techniques with them. It’s a bit more complicated than that. For example Taiwan is in the so-called new world group and some US producers now want protection for their own products, from wines to Idaho potatoes. But there is some truth in it.

In negotiations with some countries such as other Europeans, India and so on, the UK will be under pressure to protect their names. With others such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and some Latin American countries, the UK may be the one making the most demands to protect its names.

If it continues to protect EU geographical indications, Britain may need to tread carefully with the GI-sceptical “Anglosphere” countries. For example in its free trade talks, the UK might be under pressure to allow imports of Australian feta cheese (and it might want to make its own too).

The EU has deals on geographical indications with other countries, either as part of free trade agreements or separately. With Brexit, the UK wants to roll the EU’s free trade agreements over into its own, and may want to do the same with the deals on geographical indications. To do that will require either negotiation with the other countries or confirmation by them.

What does the UK face in the WTO?Back to top

The WTO agreements signed in 1994 included a commitment to set up a multilateral register for geographical indications of wines and spirts. Almost a quarter of a century later, members still have not agreed on how to do this.

The EU and its allies want the register to have some legal effect: if a name is on the register, then that should have some legal implications in all WTO members. The US and its allies see the register as little more than a database of information, which countries would be free take into account (or to ignore) when they decide whether to protect a particular name.

A second issue is whether to give some or all other products the same higher level of protection as is now given to wines and spirits (Article 23), and presumably to include them in the multilateral register. This is often called “extension”: extending the higher-level protection beyond wines and spirits.

Although this has been discussed at length in the WTO, members still have not even agreed whether it is officially a negotiation. A large number of countries support the move, but in some cases for complex bargaining reasons. The US, Australia and so on oppose it on the grounds that it would be too burdensome and restrictive, and that the standard level (Article 22) is good enough.

The UK will have to decide how to approach these questions, and also the WIPO treaties on geographical indications.

Some GI titbitsBack to top
But is it champagne? Darjeeling claims to be the champagne of teas
But is it champagne? Darjeeling claims to be the ‘champagne of teas’

Geographical indications are complicated. Every argument has a counter-argument so they are a perfect playground for intellectual property lawyers, as the endless and bottomless debates in the WTO show. Here are some illustrations.

“-style”? Or “-method”?
If “Bulgarian yoghurt” can only be made in Bulgaria, what about “Bulgarian-style” yoghurt? One view is that this is a useful indication of what the product is, helping rather than confusing consumers.

Against that is the argument that “Bulgarian-style” has no owner and no definition. The term could be abused. The reputation of yoghurt associated with “Bulgaria” would be damaged, hurting both consumers and genuine Bulgarian producers. The poor reputation of parmesan cheese made outside Italy is a real-life example.

After all, one of the features of geographical indications is that they have owners responsible for maintaining the quality and reputation. The loose term “Bulgarian-style” would not have that.

Orange: homonyms and more
Several places could have the same name, or names that sound the same (homonyms). The WTO agreement broadly covers that, but homonyms can still get pretty complicated. In late 2000 Australia entertained WTO delegates with an analysis of “Orange”. It’s a place name on five continents, some with vineyards producing what could be called “Orange wine”. And then there’s wine made from oranges. Orange is also a colour and a phone company’s trademark. It’s linked to words in other languages, including Persian where the fruit is named after Portugal, and so on. (See page 6 of this.)

Wait. What? A white wine from Champagne in Switzerland
Wait. What? Wine from Champagne in Switzerland post-2005

Champagne: Swiss and Indian
A small village in northern Switzerland is called Champagne. It used to produce a still white wine with the name, but not since 2005. Pressure from France put an end to that. Meanwhile, in the WTO debate on “extension”, a US delegate once remarked wryly that Darjeeling tea, a claimed geographical indication, is advertised as “the champagne of teas”.

Gruyère
Gruyère is a region in Switzerland surrounding the medieval village of the same name. The cheese was first made there in 1115. It’s now been produced elsewhere for generations and the name has become generic, sometimes using “Gruyère” or an equivalent in another language.

Gruyère is not in France. Nevertheless, France has managed to register “French Gruyère” produced in a dozen departments as a protected geographical indication in the EU. Despite the stereotype of Swiss cheese, authentic Gruyère has no holes. But the French version does: it “must have holes ranging in size from that of a pea to a cherry”, according to the EU regulation.

In Switzerland, “Le Gruyère” now has a Swiss protected appellation of origin (AOP) covering four whole cantons and parts of a fifth.

But is it protected in the EU? The 2011 bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the EU says it is, along with a number of other Swiss products. As an illustration of how complicated these names can be, in the agreement, Switzerland and Greece also promise not to translate “graviera” (γραβιέρα) as “gruyère” and vice versa.

However there seems to be no internal EU law or regulation confirming this — not yet anyway — and nothing Swiss appears in the “DOOR” database of products other than wines or spirits. We can only assume the bilateral agreement holds.

On a much smaller scale than the EU, Switzerland has also been trying to “reclaim” terms that have become generic. In 2013 it secured US registration for “Le Gruyère” as a certification mark (similar to trademark). But a joint application by French and Swiss producers to protect just the word “Gruyère” in the US has been challenged and remains unsettled.

One of the most-debated names: feta
Most-debated: feta cheese

Feta
This is one of the most-debated names in the WTO. The minutes of this meeting contain 14 pages of debate in which “feta” appears 50 times. Similarly for these meetings. Is it eligible for protection? Is it generic? Where exactly is its origin? Greece, Bulgaria, Denmark even? Is the legal situation in the EU contradictory? Should migrants to Australia be allowed to continue to use the name for the cheese that their ancestors made? Is feta actually produced in Australia by immigrants or by large companies?

Still have an appetite?
In 2005, the WTO Secretariat summarised the debates on “extension” in the organisation in a 44-page 21,000-word paper. Heavy going but essential reading for anyone wanting to dig deep into the subject. You can also download this 232-page guide from the International Trade Centre. Either way, keep a good Irish whiskey or Spišská borovička at hand.

FINALLY PART 3 WHAT THE WAITRESS SAIDBack to top

At the top of this article, the waitress refers to 10 types of food and drink (not counting the general “lamb” and “cheese”). Some are geographical indications, some are not:

Geographical indications protected in the EU and therefore the UK — Cornish pasty; Tiroler Bergkäse; Caerphilly; French Gruyère; Amarone della Valpolicella; Armagnac. The EU has agreed to protect Le Gruyère from Switzerland but this does not (yet) appear in the EU’s database.

Names that are generic in the EU/UK — Cheddar (except “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar cheese,” which does include the original Cheddar area in Somerset, and “Orkney Scottish Island Cheddar”, from over 1,000 km away)

Not geographical indications in the EU/UK — New Zealand lamb (although “Scotch lamb” is); Evian (Evian is a place, a lakeside French town at the foot of the Alps, but the name is a trademark for bottled water)


Updates: May 7, 2018 — references to Switzerland’s “Le Gruyère” have been corrected to reflect protection in the EU under the 2011 bilateral agreement and to remove the assertion that the name is not protected because it’s not in the DOOR database. (Thanks to Christian Häberli for pointing me to the bilateral agreement and the US certification mark)

Photocredits:
• Waitress — Steven Cleghorn on Unsplash, CC0 (public domain)
• Wine, cheese and parma ham — Lana Abie on Unsplash CC0
• Champagne — Pexels CC0
• Gruyère; wine from Champagne in Switzerland — Peter Ungphakorn CC BY 4.0
• Watercress and chives on bread — silviarita on pixaby CC0
• Darjeeling tea montage — black tea leaves, photo by Oleg Guijinsky on Unsplash CC0; Darjeeling tea, first flush 2007 Risheehat Estate, photo by David J Fred CC BY-SA 2.5
• Feta — JJ Harrison CC BY-SA 2.5


Update: the three essential tasks for the WTO’s trade facilitation deal

A year ago, two-thirds of the WTO’s membership had ratified the Trade Facilitation Agreement, activating it in the ratifying countries. What’s happened since then?

By Peter Ungphakorn
FEBRUARY 22, 2018 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 22, 2018

A year ago today, the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement took effect in the ratifying countries amid a blaze of publicity, two decades after it was first proposed.

It was the first new WTO agreement since the late 1990s and its potential benefit was huge, particularly for implementing countries and particularly if their own procedures for handling imports and exports at the border were cumbersome.

JUMP TO

1. The need to keep ratifying
2. The need to notify and implement
3. The need to provide assistance

It was also the first agreement to allow developing countries to link what they were prepared to do with receiving assistance from richer countries and donor organisations.

But the promise of the streamlined customs and other processes was conditional. For the full effect to be felt, the agreement had to be implemented in full. And a year ago that was still a long way off.

“The real work is just beginning,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo that day, February 22, 2017, and he warned against complacency.

I wrote at the time that countries still needed to do much more on this important agreement. There’s been some quiet progress since then, but it’s been slow.

There are three main areas of work: for the countries that hadn’t yet ratified to do so; for all countries to implement it including developing countries saying what choices they were going to make; and for the promised assistance to be delivered — the way aid is handled here is a unique feature among WTO agreements.

This is a brief look at what has been achieved since then.

Chart, TFA ratifications by month
Source: TFA Facility,  Click the image to see it full size

1. The need to keep ratifyingBack to top

As soon as the two-thirds figure was reached on February 22, 2017, the pressure was off, and the flow of ratifications has eased off too.

NOT YET RATIFIED

The agreement will not apply to these countries until they ratify it, although other countries will apply the trade facilitation measures equally to all WTO members (9.2.18)
Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, Congo (Democratic Republic), Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Kuwait, Liberia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Tonga, Tunisia, Uganda, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Yemen, Zimbabwe
See the TFA Facility website

Up to that date, the WTO had campaigned vigorously for countries to ratify and the ratifications accelerated from late 2016 to February 2017.

Immediately afterwards, the campaign stopped and the numbers tailed off. Countries have continued to ratify, but slowly, except for a mini-peak around the December 2017 WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires.

What the WTO’s campaign never clarified is that even after the two-thirds was reached, the agreement still hadn’t “entered into force” everywhere, only in the ratifying countries.

The remaining members also have to ratify it if it is to apply to them, and for them to receive any aid under the agreement.

Since February 22 a year ago, 18 members have ratified it, but 32 still have not.

The number has fallen gradually bit significantly a large number of countries that have not yet ratified are in Africa, the continent that is forecast to benefit most from the agreement.

There may be other reasons why the 32 still haven’t ratified. But it would be a pity if the end of the campaign on February 22, 2017 meant that outside the limelight, some countries might consider ratification no longer to be a priority.

That said, those that have not ratified will still be able to trade more easily with other countries because each applies the provisions to all-comers. But larger countries that have not ratified might not implement the agreement, and may cause problems for their trading partners.

Cat A, B, C notifications
Developing countries’ category A, B and C notifications. Source: TFA Facility. Click the image to see it full size

2. The need to notify and implementBack to top

The agreement requires countries to provide information on what they intend to do, including the aid they intend to provide, and on details of the trade facilitation measures they have implemented. The information is gradually being submitted but progress continues to be slow.

On trade facilitation itself, the requirement includes: governments providing information and allowing consultation on laws and regulations, how rulings and appeal are handled, impartiality and non-discrimination, fees, release and clearance of goods, cooperation between border agencies and between customs authorities, various formalities, and freedom of transit.

Developed countries simply have to implement everything. Most had already done a lot unilaterally.

But for developing countries, ratifying the agreement says nothing about what each country is going to do. They can choose how they want to handle its provisions, under three categories. They have to tell other members, and the world at large, what they have chosen to do and under which category.  The information is shared through notifications to the WTO:

  • Category A — measures they will implement immediately (or one year later for least-developed countries). Some, such as Egypt and Indonesia, have already notified under this category even though they have not yet ratified the agreement itself, suggesting their ratification process ought to be underway (107 notifications submitted, 44.9% of all notifiable items)
  • Category B — measures that will be phased in over a notified period (47 notifications, 7.6%)
  • Category C — measures that will be phased in so long as assistance is provided (37 notifications, 8.9%)

The stream of these notifications has been promisingly steady, if slow. It has risen to 61.4% of the notifications expected for the full range of options, compared with 47.5% in late June 2017.

The figures are broad and hide crucial detail. Even if a country has handed in notifications in all three categories, the content might not cover all the provisions, so further notifications will be needed.

Often overlooked is how notification also plays an important role domestically. It means the country’s government is getting its act together and is prepared to tackle any vested interests that might resist reform. The agreement also encourages cooperation between various agencies.

It’s an open secret that customs procedures in a number of countries are prone to corruption and inefficiency, although procuring expensive computer systems creates its own temptations. Change can also threaten officials’ sense of security.

Ultimately the country streamlining its procedures gains the most. Its imports and exports enter and leave the country quickly and at lower cost.

3. The need to provide assistanceBack to top

Twelve members (including the EU and some of its member states) have notified development assistance under the agreement.

The agreement does not commit donors to give assistance. On this, it’s a statement of intent. Donors said they could not legally bind their budgets.

But although implementing this side of the deal has only just begun, in general, aid for trade-facilitation has been around for some time. For example, the EU says its latest data shows over €700m provided in the period 2008–12. That’s before the WTO deal was struck.

The TFA Facility website’s list of donors includes 17 developed countries (including the EU and some of its members), eight international organizations, 12 regional organizations, five transport organizations and five others, with links to their programmes.

It will still take time and effort for the agreement to achieve its potential. In some countries, probably a long time — longer than the economists’ simulations assumed. As Azevêdo said, it’s only just begun.


Updates: None so far


Introducing the WTO elephant and its dodgy health

People’s understanding of the WTO is a bit like the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant. Even those who have spent their lives working on it stress different aspects

By Peter Ungphakorn
DECEMBER 17, 2017 | ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON UK TRADE FORUM DECEMBER 16, 2017 | UPDATED DECEMBER 17, 2017

There’s been an elephant in the room ever since the discussion of Brexit and trade began. Gradually, bits of the animal have become visible, but what we’ve seen has not always been accurate. It’s time to complete the picture, and to understand why the beast isn’t in the best of health.

The elephant is the 164-member World Trade Organization (WTO), whose trade ministers have just ended their biennial conference in Buenos Aires, December 10–13, with little achieved substantially.

WTO building_BW cropped_1200pxl
What is this elephant? The WTO’s headquarters, Geneva

JUMP TO

Leg 1: Trade negotiations
Leg 2: Implementing and monitoring
Leg 3: Dispute settlement
Leg 4: Development
Putting it all together

WTO agreements already apply to the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union as an EU member.

As the Brexit talks enter their second phase, they will determine what can and cannot be done with the future UK-EU relationship on trade — sometimes explicitly, sometimes quietly behind the scenes. WTO rules will also affect any trade relationship Britain seeks to define with the rest of the world, whether globally, regionally or with individual countries.

How well WTO rules and the terms of Britain’s WTO membership work depends on the nature of the elephant and its health, which cannot be taken for granted.

People’s understanding of the WTO is a bit like the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant.

IT was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

Blind_men_and_elephant 3_adj_770x340
Is it a wall? Is it a spear? Is it a snake? Is it a tree? Is it a fan? Is it a rope?

Each feels a different part and, according to this version, they observe separately a wall (the body), spear (tusk), snake (trunk), tree (leg), fan (ear), and rope (tail).

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

The same applies to the WTO. Even people who have spent their lives working on it stress different aspects.

Some lawyers’ eyes magnify WTO dispute settlement and its jurisprudence, the “jewel in the crown”. For some practitioners, what matters are the achievements of WTO committees whose work is partly designed to avoid legal disputes. Many journalists judge the WTO by the success or failure of negotiations. And so on.

So what is this elephant?

The WTO’s own explanation is here. We’ll do it differently, focusing on the elephant’s four legs — bearing in mind that the whole elephant is the WTO’s multilateral trading system. The elephant stands or moves on those legs. All four are important. Right now they are not too steady.

Leg 1: Trade negotiations — where WTO rules come fromBack to top

Japanese_Blind_monks_examining_elephant_383x270

Negotiations are the starting point of everything that happens in the WTO. All “WTO rules” are actually negotiated agreements. Everything the WTO does is based on them.

They include key principles such as non-discrimination and transparency, and aim for a trading system that is stable and predictable.

They have been negotiated and re-negotiated since the end of the Second World War, starting with the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, which deals with trade in goods), through the addition of services and intellectual property in 1995 (when the WTO was created) and to streamlining border procedures (“trade facilitation”) in 2013.

Negotiations can be by individual subject, or as a package or “round” covering many subjects. Rounds allow trade-offs across subjects, which can help to break deadlock — for example, a country reluctant to reform agriculture might find it easier to do so if other countries open up their financial services markets in return. But because rounds cover many subjects they are also more complex. Single-subject negotiations are simpler but with less scope for trade-offs.

In 2001 WTO members agreed to launch the Doha Round. They hoped to reach agreement in four years, and they failed. Despite immense progress in 2006–2008, the talks fell short of agreement. Since then, they have stagnated. In the meantime a handful of single-subject deals have been struck. Some came from the Doha Round, including the one in 2013 on trade facilitation.

Agreement in the WTO is by “consensus”, which means no one objects. In 2015 some countries such as the US wanted to declare the Doha Round to be over. Others, mainly developing countries, disagreed. Without consensus, the Doha Round could not be declared dead. But it could not continue in that form either. I’ve called it a zombie.

The WTO’s political leaders, ever since Mike Moore was its director-general in 1999, have measured their own success or failure by the fate of negotiations. By that measure, Moore was successful in launching the Doha Round but all his successors have failed to conclude the talks, until recently when single-issue deals have been agreed.

But there’s more to this elephant than that.

Leg 2: Implementing and monitoring — vital, routine WTO workBack to top

Thai_Blind_men_and_elephant_383x439

Someone described the WTO’s negotiations and other headline-hitting work as the “poetry” in its “plumbing”. The plumbing is unglamorous and rarely seen but cannot be ignored.

Signing negotiated agreements is not an end: it’s a beginning.

Most of the WTO’s routine work is about monitoring how well countries keep the promises they made in those agreements and implementing what was agreed.

It involves a huge amount of information-sharing and scrutiny by WTO members — in over 20 “regular” committees, each comprising the full membership. This leg is wobbling because members struggle to keep up-to-date with the information they have to supply once or twice a year, or when they introduce new regulations or policies. That makes monitoring difficult.

Even when countries keep their promises, the way they do it can hamper trade. When these problems are raised in the committees, solutions can be found just by talking, avoiding expensive legal disputes. Some of the most productive work is on product standards and regulations, such as how to ensure food or industrial products are safe.

If there is no news from these committees, then the system is working well. Generally, peer pressure encourages countries to keep the promises they made in the agreements. That in itself should be news but it’s rarely reported.

All of this means most of the $20 trillion global trade in goods and services flows smoothly and almost unnoticed. Some experts even argue that the WTO’s success or failure should be measured primarily by the “plumbing”, not the poetry.

Leg 3: Dispute settlement — adjudicating WTO lawBack to top

Blind_men_and_elephant_2_383x358

Back to the poetry, though. Formal WTO disputes attract much more attention. They help enforce agreements. They also deal with huge amounts of money (such as aircraft subsidies) or other concerns (such as when tuna fishing endangers dolphins).

WTO disputes are always between governments, so “Boeing” versus “Airbus” is actually the US versus the EU.

And they are always about broken promises (violations of WTO agreements, commitments or expected rights). If a government simply dislikes another’s trade policy in general, the solution is to try to negotiate new rules.

Normally, that is also the recourse when a country is dissatisfied with a dispute ruling.

This year, something different has happened. The US is unhappy with rulings against a particular method it used to calculate something called a “dumping margin”. It’s all very technical but powerful commercial interests are involved and the upshot is that the US is blocking the appointment of WTO appeals judges to replace those whose terms expire. By December 11, they had dwindled from seven to just four.

Unless something changes, WTO disputes could eventually come to a halt. The elephant would be toothless.

Leg 4: Development — the WTO’s particular roleBack to top

Blind_men_and_elephant_255x395

The WTO Is not a development agency, but members want it to have a role. It does this in several ways.

Trade itself is supposed to help developing countries. The rules in the trade agreements also include a considerable amount of leeway for them.

The WTO hosts “aid-for-trade” meetings between development agencies and other donors, and developing countries, so that aid matches real needs as much as possible.

And the WTO Secretariat also trains officials from developing countries so they can operate better in the system.

Acknowledging this used to be routine. Not anymore.

The US blocked a draft declaration for the December 10–13, 2017 WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires. It objected to the  commitments to the WTO’s multilateral trading system and development, both standard in previous declarations.

Putting it all together — and what it means for the UKBack to top

Some have claimed that the threat to the dispute settlement system means the elephant could be on its deathbed. Others have said the same about the failure to conclude a major negotiation. And then there are those who remind us that the routine work is in reasonably good health, even if the information that members notify to the WTO needs to be better and to arrive faster.

As far as Brexit is concerned, a weakened WTO would allow Britain more leeway in how it chooses its trade policies. But it if the UK feels that others’ trade policies are unwelcome, a weakened WTO would also give it less leverage to deal with the problem.

As for the idea that by leaving the EU, Britain can inject new life into the elephant (which some seriously believe), at the very least the UK will need to learn how to ride it first.


Slightly adapted from: “What is the World Trade Organization?” on UK Trade Forum

Updates: None so far

Photocredit: WTO building © WTO

Illustrations: drawings and paintings of the blind men and the elephant, all public domain:
from Charles Maurice Stebbins & Mary H Coolidge,
Golden Treasury Reader (US);
by Itcho Hanabusa (Japan);
from Phra That Phanom chedi temple (Thailand):
from
Holton-Curry Readers (US);
from Augusta Stevenson,
Children’s Classics in Dramatic Form (US)


How to be a trade champion

A guide for busy politicians


By Peter Ungphakorn
NOVEMBER 21, 2017 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 21, 2017

By Abraham Storck - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1147660
Size counts: the more you trade, the bigger your clout in the WTO

International Trade Minister Greg Hands has again proclaimed the UK is a global trade champion only needing to “reclaim our position at heart of global trading system”.

I have written a longer piece on this. Here are some key points for busy readers. I’m using the WTO as the context since that’s where “the heart of the global trading system” is.

How to be a trade champion
  1. Have a policy
  2. Sort out the UK’s WTO membership terms
  3. Be large(-ish)
  4. Have a position that resonates with others
  5. Either
    a. be constructive so everyone likes you
    or
    b. be stubborn so everyone has to put up with you
  6. Have a good supply of skilled diplomats and trade officials
  7. Accept that you still might not be at the top table

The WTO operates a consensus system, which means a decision is reached when no one objects.

In theory all 164 members should have the same decision-making power. In practice, there is an unofficial power structure, even though consensus is ultimately needed: the power structure influences the consensus outcome.

At the top: these days it’s the G5 — the US, EU, Brazil, China, India.

Next level down: the “Green Room” or equivalent — 20 to 30 members because of their influence or because they represent constituencies. They include the G5 plus Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, Argentina, and others representing various groups of developing and least developed countries.

This is roughly how they got there and what the UK would need to join them

1. Have a policyBack to top

Obviously. But when politicians talk about the UK being a champion of trade, they are also advocating the UK being much more of a free trader than it is now, particularly in agriculture. This has not been debated properly and is certainly not the official policy of any of the main British political parties. In particular, this government has promised to continue to support farmers at present levels, at least for a time. Moving away from that would involve some substantial changes that have barely been discussed.

If the UK ends up in a customs union with the EU, then its trade policy for goods (not services) will be more or less the same as the EU’s. If it doesn’t, it may have a freer hand, but a lot also depends on how it aligns its regulations. Even though a customs union is not government policy, some still advocate it. Other policies are also still up in the air.

2. Sort out the UK’s WTO membership termsBack to top

The UK (and EU) have only just started talking about establishing their separate commitments in the WTO on tariffs, “tariff quotas” (explained here), farm subsidies, and on opening services and public procurement markets. It’s taken months just to prepare data for the tariff quotas and the real negotiations haven’t yet begun.

These commitments will be needed by Brexit day, March 29, 2019, so that the UK’s WTO membership terms are clear, and it’s going to be hard work. There’s no harm in having a long term vision, but for now the focus should be on the more urgent nitty-gritty.

3. Be large(-ish)Back to top

A key reason for being either in the G5 or the Green Room is economic size, particularly the share of world trade. As a rough guide we can look at WTO figures for goods exports.

Among the G5, the EU would be top if counted as a single entity, followed by China and the US. But the WTO ranks EU member states individually (Germany 3rd, the Netherlands 5th, etc) and this puts India 20th and Brazil 25th.

Among countries in the Green Room, with their ranking, are: Japan (4, after Germany), Canada (12 after a number of EU states, Hong Kong and South Korea), Switzerland (15), Australia (23), and so on.

And the UK? Tenth, putting it well inside the Japan, Canada and Switzerland group.

The factors that affect trading size include the size of the economy (population size and per capita income), the value of products (which goes some way to explaining Switzerland’s high ranking), and also having a large port (as with Hong Kong and Singapore, and to some extent the Netherlands).

4. Have a position that resonates with othersBack to top

Size is not the only reason Brazil, China and India are in the G5. They each speak on behalf of different groups of developing countries. Brazil tries to bridge the differences between agricultural free traders (Thailand, Uruguay) and those wanting to protect their poor farmers (India, Indonesia, Kenya). In different ways China and India sometimes speak on behalf of weaker developing countries.

At the next level are coordinators of various coalitions of shared interests. Australia represents agricultural free traders. Switzerland coordinates a group of more advanced but more defensive agricultural producers. Others represent the African Group, the least-developed countries, and so on.

If the UK sticks to its present trade policy, it could find that the EU still best represents its position even after Brexit.

Or will its trade policy change? For now, that’s unclear. To be a leader of any kind, it would have to develop a new separate policy of its own, and one that would resonate with other members. But the field is already crowded. In agriculture, the UK might have to accept the leadership of Australia or Switzerland, depending on which direction it chooses, or be a lone voice with no followers.

5a. Either be constructive so everyone likes youBack to top

One way of winning friends and influencing people in the WTO is to help break a deadlock by proposing a compromise that everyone likes enough to want to work on it. This requires knowledge, skill and subtlety. It means understanding what might and might not be acceptable to others and the creativity and imagination to produce something new.

Countries rarely do this on their own. In the past few weeks, China has produced a new proposal on disciplining fisheries subsidies on its own, but the paper essentially reflects a Chinese concern and will need to be negotiated. By contrast, the EU and Brazil approached the negotiations on curbing farm subsidies from different directions and proposed a draft compromise. Whether that succeeds remains to be seen.

5b. Or be stubborn so everyone has to put up with youBack to top

India has a decades-old reputation in the WTO for being a blocker although it would argue that it is defending the weak and vulnerable. Most recently, it held up a new agreement on streamlining border procedures (“trade facilitation”) in order to push a separate proposal that would free public stockholding of food from WTO subsidy disciplines.

Anyone can be stubborn. From time to time the US and EU have been too, so size counts as well. There’s no doubt that a large and vocal India was difficult to ignore.

An anecdote. In 1986 the US and EU wanted to launch a major new round of negotiations. Some hardline developing countries led by India, Brazil and Argentina opposed the move. Finally two smallish countries, Colombia and Switzerland decided to take matters into their own hands. They produced a joint compromise proposal (appropriately nicknamed “café au lait”). More and more countries signed on, and that eventually became the basis for launching the “Uruguay Round” talks, which created the WTO.

In that example, constructive compromise trumped stubbornness.

6. Have a good supply of skilled diplomats and trade officialsBack to top

If you’ve read this far, the need is obvious. Trade is technical and political. If a country is to operate effectively and credibly it needs skilled officials who can understand both the technicalities and other countries’ concerns.

Right now, the UK is in the early stages of rebuilding its capacity to negotiate trade. Its initial focus will be on sorting out its trading relationship with the EU, then on negotiating or renegotiating bilateral free trade agreements with other countries.

Those deals will be important for the UK, but they are not enough to make it a trade champion on the world stage. For some time to come, they will also draw British resources away from work in the WTO.

7. Accept that you still might not be at the top tableBack to top

In fact there is really little chance that the UK will be in the G5 or whatever evolves next. A proper analysis of how countries fit into the power structure is bound to show that.

There is no shame in this. Constructive middle-level roles in the WTO — such as by Canada, Australia, Argentina, Japan, Switzerland, etc — are vital for the trading system. They are all realistic about what they can achieve and they get on with it.

The UK should do the same. Misguided self-importance will only backfire.


Updates: None so far
Photocredits:
• Harbour scene by Abraham Storck, public domain


What WTO leadership means and where the UK would fit in

People who should know better keep talking about the UK becoming a leader in the World Trade Organization. What exactly does this mean and what are the chances?

By Peter Ungphakorn
NOVEMBER 8, 2017 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 8, 2017

Brexit will allow Britain to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Legatum Institute claims in a new paper published on November 4, 2017.

The paper, “The Brexit Inflection Point: The Pathway to Prosperity”, is new but the claim is not — not entirely.

“Britain stands ready to take a leading role within the WTO,” International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said in a speech at the WTO almost a year earlier on December 1, 2016.

Major General Wellesley (mounted, the future Duke of Wellington) commanding his troops at the Battle of Assaye (J.C. Stadler after W.Heath) Public domain, National Army Museum
No invisible hands here: the British East India Company won monopolies and trading power partly through war such as at the Battle of Assaye in 1803

And further back in September 2016, Fox talked about “corralling coalitions of the willing” in a speech at Manchester Town Hall:

If other nations are hanging back, then the UK will happily lead the charge for global free trade. We will corral coalitions of the willing who share a belief that a more open and free trading world is the one which will provide the brightest economic future for our citizens.

The UK is a full and founding member of the WTO, though we have chosen to be represented by the EU in recent years. As we establish our independent position post-Brexit, we will carry the standard of free and open trade as a badge of honour.

JUMP TO
In Legatum’s extraordinary words
WTO leadership: from Quad to G5
Next level leadership
Liberalising agenda
Why?

SEE ALSO
How to be a trade champion:
a guide for busy politicians

This should be a minor distraction. It isn’t. Although Legatum’s paper deals with a wide range of issues, it makes leadership in the WTO an over-riding objective, determining for example whether the UK should be in a customs union with the EU and what kind of regulatory system it should adopt.

Legatum is forever optimistic — nothing wrong in that so long as the optimism is justified. Its paper covers a wide range of topics including regulations, standards, customs cooperation, options for an interim or transition period for Brexit, and so on.

Much of it has been questioned. That includes a number of Twitter threads, for example by barrister George Peretz, law professor Steve Peers, and commentator Frances Coppola. And then there’s pro-Brexit Richard North, who wrote on his blog that Legatum was confused about regulations, standards, mutual recognition and conformity assessment. And Martin Sandhu in an FT article, who called the paper “a confidence trick”.

Many of the criticism are about the details. More broadly Legatum is also accused of painting a picture of a future that is too rosy and a past that was not as glorious as it claims — certainly not a model for modern trade:

A century ago, Britain was the “free trade nation”, a cause that brought crowds of tens of thousands to the streets in its defence, being vital both to the livelihoods of Britons and to the economic miracle Britain gave the world in the century to 1914. But in the century since, our trade — and the world’s — has been subsumed into a restrictive system that creates poverty. The global economy is essentially stuck (page 5).

Many have commented that much of the UK’s trade dominance was actually acquired by force and empire-building. As for the future, “free trade is not an unalloyed good, and we do have to consider the costs as well as the benefits” said Frances Coppola in an exchange on her Twitter thread.

She echoed a more general assessment by Friends of the Earth’s Sam Lowe, who tweeted in May 2017 that Legatum’s papers are “all upside, little acknowledgement of the down. The remotely possible portrayed as plausible.”

I’m not saying the paper is all wrong. Far from it. But I’ll leave it to others to debate the rights and wrongs of other details. Many of these are either beyond my expertise or are based on debatable assumptions about the future, about how the EU and others will react to particular positions.

What follows here is about that over-riding objective in the paper, leadership in the WTO, developed from my own Twitter thread.

In Legatum’s extraordinary wordsBack to top

There is a subtle difference between taking “the lead” in the WTO (Legatum) and “a leading role” (Fox). What did Legatum mean, and what other leading roles might be available to the UK?

These are some extracts from Legatum’s paper. It calls for much more than simply “a leading role”. In fact, what it proposes is pretty extraordinary.

It says that one of the UK government’s immediate actions should be:

Taking the lead in World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership and explaining why the UK and WTO members now share a trade liberalising agenda. (Page 4, and similar on page 10, my emphasis here and in other quotes).

Suddenly, it seems, according to Legatum, the UK can be at the peak of the WTO’s power structure. (Who is currently there? We’ll look at power politics in the WTO in a moment.)

But more than that, the UK will “explain” why all of a sudden Britain and all other WTO members “now share a trade liberalising agenda”.

Legatum does not clarify how, simply because the UK is leaving the EU, this remarkable change can take place. It could not possibly do so. After all, “WTO members” includes the EU and its member states (for now including the UK) as well as the 135 non-EU, non-UK WTO members. Brexit doesn’t change that.

There’s no earthly reason why the diverse agendas of all the 164 members (including the EU’s) should suddenly align once the UK has left the EU and “explained” the need for a different direction.

The idea of UK leadership is repeated through the paper, for example this on a customs union and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA):

Interim proposals are now being floated to remain in the Customs Union, part of it, or join EFTA and accede to the EEA Agreement. This is very dangerous: the EU will use such uncertainty to maximise its leverage, while other trading partners will re-focus their energies on the EU. The UK will lose its opportunity for trade leadership at the WTO, and the consequences will be serious. (Page 7)

And this on regulations:

The UK must therefore be able to regulate differently from the EU in areas like standards and regulatory issues. If it is locked into the EU regulatory model, it will not be able to make the adjustments necessary in order to sign comprehensive free trade deals with other countries, nor will it be able to lead in the WTO and other multilateral fora. (Page 21, and similar on page 23)

And this on tariff commitments and again a customs union:

Without control over tariff schedules [ie, lists of commitments in the WTO], time in the Customs Union prevents UK leadership within the WTO. (Page 29)

Also repeated is the notion that the UK’s role in the WTO is to “explain” what the world should do:

Beginning at the WTO, the UK needs to frame its case by explaining that making the global economy more prosperous over the long-term requires the urgent liberalisation of world trade. (Page 9)

Before Fox considers “corralling coalitions of the willing” in the WTO — or taking up Legatum’s fantasy of the UK leading and explaining — he might like to look at the many coalitions that already exist and how power is structured in reality in the organisation.

WTO leadership: from Quad to G5Back to top

Once upon a time, there was the “Quad”, occupying the summit of the power pyramid. They were the US, EU (including the UK), Canada and Japan, at that time the four largest traders.

Roughly speaking, nothing would be agreed if it couldn’t pass the Quad. But more importantly, if they could negotiate a breakthrough among themselves then the rest of the membership could be covered, provided some flexibility or opt-outs were included for smaller countries.

One historical breakthrough in November 1992 was bilateral, between the US and EU (the so-called Blair House accord on agriculture). Not even Canada and Japan were involved. Even in that structure, the UK on its own would hardly be the leader. But that structure no longer exists anyway.

The Quad dominated throughout the Uruguay Round — the 1986–94 negotiation that created the WTO in 1995 — and into the WTO’s early years. Then, as the century turned, trade was changing. By 2015, Canada and Japan had been jettisoned. In came Brazil, China and India.

At the peak, the Quad has been replaced by the “G5”, which was responsible for the breakthrough at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in December 2015, when members agreed to scrap agricultural export subsidies.

Ironically, the UK was represented in that G5 — by EU commissioners Cecilia Malmström (trade) and Phil Hogan (agriculture). After Brexit, it’ll be on its own.

Next level leadershipBack to top

At a pinch the UK might have been able to get a seat in the old Quad beside Canada and Japan, but not now. In the WTO, the UK will be in the second or third tier of the power structure.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Many countries at that level play constructive roles and have won the respect of fellow-members.

However, none of them did it by marching in and proclaiming “I’m a leader now, let me explain.” Not even the US can get away with that.

Nor did they have to be major traders. New Zealand has supplied a succession of chairs in the crucial agricultural talks, its trade diplomats having acquired a reputation as professional, skilled, honest brokers.

(One of them, Crawford Falconer, is now a senior official in Fox’s department. He is also on Legatum’s Special Trade Commission, a move that did raise eyebrows.)

A more effective way of being heard in the WTO is to join an alliance. WTO alliances already have coordinators, so in another sense, the WTO already has lots of leaders.

Australia coordinates the Cairns Group campaigning to liberalise agriculture. Switzerland (an EFTA member) does it for the G–10, which is more defensive on agricultural trade. Brazil set up the G–20 group of developing countries. Taiwan (officially “Chinese Taipei”) coordinates a group of countries that recently joined the WTO. And so on. The WTO website has a long list of alliances in its trade negotiations.

What should the UK do? Take agriculture. If it really is keen on liberalising agriculture, it could join the Cairns Group, but not as its leader. Australia and the others would not appreciate that.

If on the other hand it wants to keep the more defensive policy it now applies as an EU member, it could join the G–10, but Switzerland, Norway and Japan would also not accept it as a leader.

Or, it could go it alone. Only the US and some countries with a minor interest in agriculture have done that, for example Singapore, Hong Kong and some Middle Eastern states. The UK would have a voice, but not a very loud one.

Coalitions in the WTO agriculture negotiations
Where would the UK fit in? The graphic is slightly out of date but it still shows how complex WTO power is, in just one subject (Click the image to see it full size)

But before it embarks on any of this, Britain will have to sort out what kind of trade policy it wants. Take agriculture again. What should the policy be?

Low import duties and low subsidies? Broadly speaking, consumers would gain, many farmers would lose (some would gain) and subsidies for protecting the environment might also be lost.

Continuing with present high duties and some subsidies? Food would remain fairly expensive but farmers would stay in business and British production would be sustained (although Brexit itself might affect that too).

Or something else? The discussion has barely begun.

The UK might face another struggle if it wants to be influential in the WTO. Several non-UK officials have remarked that the UK used to be respected as a sound, pragmatic player in trade and other issues. Brexit, they say, means the UK is now seen as confused, floundering and ineffective.

If that reputation can be repaired, then the UK could find itself among over a dozen second-tier “leaders” in the WTO. It would not have a seat at the summit, but it could be invited to unofficial meetings of 20–30 members (sometimes called “Green Room” meetings) alongside the “G5”, Canada, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, Argentina, South Africa and whoever chairs various groups of developing countries.

To be clear, for a country of the UK’s size and clout, there would be no disgrace in joining that group. It would also be more realistic than talking of leadership.

Nairobi delegates scrutinise final declaration 19.12.2015
Is Doha dead? Is it alive? Delegates at the WTO’s Nairobi Ministerial Conference scrutinise the final declaration, December 19, 2015
Liberalising agendaBack to top

Tied in with idea of leadership is the notion that Britain outside the EU can launch its independent WTO membership by “explaining that making the global economy more prosperous over the long-term requires the urgent liberalisation of world trade.”

The truth is that in the WTO a call to liberalise trade is a meaningless cliché. The UK can “explain” as much as it likes but the real difficulty is that there is little agreement on how and what to liberalise, what the downsides are for a widely divergent membership, and how urgent the need is.

In 2001, sixteen years ago, the start of a new set of negotiations was agreed. They are unofficially known as the Doha Round or the Doha Development Agenda (DDA). Launching the talks, WTO trade ministers declared:

We are determined, particularly in the light of the global economic slowdown, to maintain the process of reform and liberalization of trade policies, thus ensuring that the system plays its full part in promoting recovery, growth and development.

Sixteen years later, WTO members have failed to agree on how to achieve that, except in a limited number of issues such as cutting red tape at the border (“trade facilitation”) and scrapping agricultural export subsidies (whose use is now dwindling).

Worse, WTO members cannot even agree on whether the Doha Round is over or not. This is what their ministers declared at their last biennial conference in Nairobi in December 2015:

30. We recognize that many Members reaffirm the Doha Development Agenda, and the Declarations and Decisions adopted at Doha and at the Ministerial Conferences held since then, and reaffirm their full commitment to conclude the DDA on that basis.  Other Members do not reaffirm the Doha mandates, as they believe new approaches are necessary to achieve meaningful outcomes in multilateral negotiations. Members have different views on how to address the negotiations. We acknowledge the strong legal structure of this Organization.

Given how diverse opinions and interests are among WTO members, the notion that they will take heed when the UK “explains” is bizarre.

Why?Back to top

There are a number of other questionable assertions about the UK and the WTO in Legatum’s paper.

They include a claim that other WTO members will want a say in a future UK-EU trade agreement (there’s no precedent for this because WTO disciplines on free trade agreements are weak, except for blatant violations).

And Legatum says the UK should talk to other WTO members alone, without the EU, when setting up Britain’s WTO commitments on tariff quotas (difficult to achieve since processes for the UK and EU are intertwined, and British officials are far less experienced than the EU’s in negotiating tariff quotas). In any case the two are already working together.

One of the problems with Legatum’s obsession with WTO leadership is that it diverts attention away from the real issues it should be considering.

For example, the question of whether the UK should be in a customs union with the EU is really about a trade-off. The benefit is smoother trade (in goods) between the two. The downside is that the UK would not be free to set its own tariff rates and negotiating free trade agreements with other countries would be almost impossible.

And the argument in favour of having a customs union temporarily during a transition period is to give business more time to adjust to the final UK-EU relationship.

Legatum ignores all of those arguments on the grounds that the UK needs to grab WTO leadership and to do so fast. It does not say what the benefit of leadership will be other than the questionable claim that it is needed so other countries can take the UK seriously. And of course that it will bring pride and the futile hope that the world will be spurred into creating a free trade paradise.

If this were just about a paper from an ill-informed institute, it would not matter much. The problem is that misguided jingoism is common in the debates about Brexit. Legatum’s line feeds straight into Fox’s preoccupations, for example.

There are real trade-offs and real dilemmas that have to be tackled. Talk of UK leadership in trade is unrealistic, unhelpful and a distraction.


Updates: None so far

Photocredits:
• Major General Wellesley (mounted, the future Duke of Wellington) commanding his troops at the Battle of Assaye (J.C. Stadler after W.Heath). Public domain, National Army Museum

• Delegates at the 2015 Ministerial Conference, in Nairobi, © WTO. Courtesy of Admedia Communication


UK, EU, WTO, Brexit primer — 2. Tariff quotas

Continuing a look at what lies behind the sudden surge in interest in the UK’s and EU’s relationship with the World Trade Organization. Part 2: the ABCs of tariff quotas

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 7, 2017 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 25, 2017

When the press learned that the UK and EU had agreed on a common approach for their talks with other World Trade Organization (WTO) members, the headlines spoke of a “breakthrough” and a “deal”. A closer look suggests this was an exaggeration. But the issue is important, nonetheless.

What the two had agreed was a joint approach for handling something called “tariff quotas” when dealing with other WTO members.

On October 12, that joint approach was published in a letter to WTO members (pdf). The following week it was the basis of the first proper round of talks with other WTO members.

Bakery products
Tariff quotas are typically on food and other sensitive products

JUMP TO
Tariff quotas
The real deal
Months of talks
Jochem Sprenger’s tweets
The October 16–20 talks

No sooner had the story broken than opposition emerged in a letter that the US, New Zealand and some other countries had sent to the British and EU ambassadors in Geneva.

Suddenly tariff quotas were really juicy. Critics saw the developments as proof that London’s Brexit plans were in disarray, and that ministers were misguided (or deliberately misleading the public) in claiming it would be easy to secure future free trade deals with the likes of the US and New Zealand. Politico’s headline said “post-Brexit trade woes deepen”.

This was “a complete, unmitigated disaster for the Brexiteers, Liam Fox, and the UK as a whole”, one member of parliament initially tweeted. She subsequently toned her comment down by clarifying “this is technical. UK has to lodge new schedules at WTO. Gov was planning to do this using method that requires little approval,” before continuing to criticise the government for getting it wrong.

As Adam, my editor at IEG Agribusiness Intelligence, said: tariff quotas were now mainstream. Even The Guardian had an editorial on the subject.

The excitement partly arose because this issue is so esoteric and technically complex that its significance is difficult to assess. Little wonder people struggled to judge realistically what it meant. It was easy fodder for the emotions Brexit has been stirring for months.

The use of “breakthrough” was defended on the grounds that it was the first time the UK and EU had agreed on anything in their fraught separation talks.

Perhaps a valid point, but this was not really about their future relationship, and “breakthrough” suggests the UK and EU had previously been deadlocked on this issue as well.

There is little public evidence to support that, although a Dutch official indicated on Twitter that some differences did need sorting out, so perhaps there was a breakthrough of a kind. Another tweet suggests the agreed approach was vaguer than the original reports suggested and might fall short of a “deal” (confirmed when the UK-EU letter was published — see details below).

Basically, the issue is so complex that much of it could easily have been left to civil service trade technicians on the two sides to come up with a common approach.

It’s unlikely David Davis and Michel Barnier would get their hands dirty on this one. But it was part of phase 1 (on separation terms) of the “Article 50” Brexit talks. Paragraph 13 of the EU’s negotiating guidelines deals broadly with honouring international commitments. The WTO is only one of these.

13. Following the withdrawal, the United Kingdom will no longer be covered by agreements concluded by the Union or by Member States acting on its behalf or by the Union and its Member States acting jointly. The Union will continue to have its rights and obligations in relation to international agreements. In this respect, the European Council expects the United Kingdom to honour its share of all international commitments contracted in the context of its EU membership. In such instances, a constructive dialogue with the United Kingdom on a possible common approach towards third country partners, international organisations and conventions concerned should be engaged.

Free from political supervision, technical-level officials often collaborate well to produce a shared result. After all, for tariff quotas there is nothing mysterious about the possible approach. I even explored it here.

300,000-tonne tariff quota
Quantities within the quota are duty-free. Outside, the tariff is 100%

Tariff quotasBack to top

Basically, “tariff quotas” are where limited quantities of imports are allowed into a country duty-free or at low duty. Quantities beyond those limits would normally be charged high duties. Because they are all about tariff rates for specific quantities, they are also called “tariff-rate quotas” or TRQs.

They are used on products that are sensitive: typically food and other agricultural goods. They are a compromise between: protecting domestic farmers and other producers with high import duties; and demands from exporters to be allowed full access to the market. The compromise is to have low or zero tariffs, but only for limited quantities. This also allows consumers to buy some cheaper or more varied food than if there were no quotas.

When a WTO member has tariff quotas, they are included in its “schedules” or lists of commitments (explained in part 1).

The EU has around 100 — the exact figure depending on how they are counted — on cheese, butter, beef, poultry, sheep and goat meat, other meat, live animals, sugar, citrus and other fruit, fruit juice, some vegetables, eggs, cereals and more.

So does the UK because as an EU member, the UK’s commitments are part of the EU’s.

When it leaves, the UK will need to have its own independent set of commitments. Most of this can be copied from the EU’s, meaning the UK would simply continue with the tariff ceilings and commitments on opening services markets that it currently has through the EU.

But for a handful of items, copying is not possible. Perhaps easier to handle among these are farm subsidy limits. The most complex and contentious are tariff quotas. This is where the common UK-EU approach comes in.

Take lamb (strictly speaking, “sheep and goat meat”). The EU currently allows around 300,000 tonnes to be imported duty-free. Some of that goes to the UK, some to other EU members. Once imported into one EU country it can be shipped on freely to another.

After Brexit, the UK and EU would normally have separate tariff quotas. What size should the UK’s be? And what about the EU’s?

A basic intuitive approach would be this. If 40% of the EU’s imports go to the UK and 60% go to the other countries, then the quota might also be split 40:60 — the UK’s tariff quota would be 120,000 tonnes and the EU’s would be 180,000. (The actual ratio seems to be closer to 50:50.)

This particular quota is actually subdivided between different suppliers, New Zealand having just over 200,000 tonnes. Although New Zealand could export all of that to any single EU member, in practice around 48% goes to the UK and 52% to the rest of the EU. So the UK’s tariff quota for New Zealand lamb could be 48% of 200,000 tonnes (96,000 tonnes) leaving the EU with a quota of 104,000 tonnes.

It ought to have been easy for the technicians on both sides to agree to those principles for their common approach.

The real challenge would have been grappling with the numbers, a much more difficult and time-consuming task, but a technical one.

Should the trade data be based on a certain number of years (perhaps an average of three or five) and if so which years (up to the start of the separation talks or to the date of the actual separation)? What kind of average should be used for the data (a straight three-year average, or a five-year “Olympic average” which excludes the highest and lowest numbers)? How should imports that enter the EU through other countries but end up consumed in the UK be identified, for example imports via Rotterdam? What should be done when data is unavailable? And so on.

It turned out that these were precisely the kinds of questions that occupied UK’s and EU’s economic statisticians and other officials for months. But unless they actually have a significant impact on UK and EU commercial interests, they are unlikely to attract the attention of the political masters.

The agreement on a commont UK and EU approach was described as preliminary (which Sprenger’s tweets seemed to confirm). Securing the approval of EU member states was apparently straightforward. The UK and EU followed up, as planned, by submitting it to WTO members in the third week of October on the sidelines of the WTO Agriculture Committee’s meetings.

Agreeing common solutions to statistical problems is not what most people would consider a breakthrough in Brexit talks. Nor is it a “deal”, in the sense that a deal usually involves paying something in order to get something else in return.

It also tells us next to nothing about the actual Brexit separation terms or the future relationship between the UK and EU.

The real dealBack to top

It’s what happens next that will involve payment. This could take months at least.

And the bargaining will not be between the UK and the EU since their own bilateral trade is for now being kept out of the picture — an important point since it implies the UK and EU assume free trade between them in goods will continue after Brexit.

The bargaining will be between the UK (and separately the EU–27) and the rest of the WTO. Those talks began in the week of October 16–20, when the UK and EU together met other delegations individually to present the data they had been working on, and to explain their joint approach. To what extent the UK’s and EU’s negotiations with other WTO members stay merged remains to be seen.

Already on September 26 — before the UK and EU sent out their joint letter — seven countries had publicly rejected (pdf) the UK-EU approach.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand, the US, and Uruguay wrote to the UK and EU ambassadors in Geneva:

“We are aware of media reports suggesting the possibility of a bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union 27 countries about splitting Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs) based on historical averages. We would like to record that such an outcome would not be consistent with the principle of leaving other World Trade Organization Members no worse off, nor fully honour the existing access commitment. We cannot accept such an agreement.”

The letter includes a number of legal justifications including this assertion:  “The modification of these TRQ access arrangements cannot credibly be achieved through a technical rectification. None of these arrangements should be modified without our agreement.” And “the whole membership of the organization may take an interest.”

The concerns were echoed by Australian trade minister Steven Ciobo on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on November 25.

What these countries are arguing is that dealing with post Brexit tariff quotas is not just a technical correction (“rectification”) of the implied commitments of the EU–27 and the UK. Under WTO procedures, rectification is quick and requires little or no negotiation. On the other hand, a “modification” does require talking particularly with countries that were part of the original negotiations or have a substantial interest.

The key difference between the two sides is on the meaning of leaving other WTO members “no worse off” and honouring “the existing access commitment”.

Take that example of splitting the 300,000-tonne EU–28 quota into 120,000 tonnes for the UK and 180,000 tonnes for the EU. The combined total is still 300,000 tonnes.

But the seven are arguing that the commercial value to them would be reduced because they have less flexibility to choose where to export their product to. While the UK is still in the EU, they can switch from selling less to the UK and more to Germany or France if the price is better, for example. Under the joint UK-EU approach that freedom would be constrained by the separate quotas.

At the very least, this suggests the seven would want: either, quotas that are larger than 120,000 tonnes (UK) and 180,000 (EU–27), meaning more than 300,000 tonnes in total; or, continued freedom to choose where to sell their products in the 28 countries that are now the EU.

That freedom would continue to exist, for example, if the UK ends up back in the single market and customs union with unchanged tariff quotas. In that case, the seven would drop their demand to negotiate.

The rejection does not mean the talks in the WTO are deadlocked, doomed or an “unmitigated disaster”. They haven’t even really started yet.

The UK, EU and some of the rest of the WTO have now declared their starting positions. Months of negotiations will follow. Any agreement reached after that will be the real deal. It will clear the way for trade to continue.

Since the new WTO commitments, including on tariff quotas, will be needed when the UK leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, and since they would normally need three months to be processed in the WTO, officials say they expect an agreement by the end of 2018.

Months of talk aheadBack to top

One journalist I spoke to was surprised that we might have to wait until this time next year at the earliest to find out what the deal is. We should not be surprised. Nothing happens quickly in the WTO.

These are pretty complicated issues. There are around 100 tariff quotas. At each stage, the negotiators in Geneva will have to consult officials, governments, farmers’ groups and exporters back home. The EU will have to consult the 27 member states too. The UK is understood to be aiming to submit its draft schedules of commitments sometime next year.

Even the first stage of preparing the data has taken so long that some sources say it was still incomplete at that first round of talks in the week of October 16–20. Other WTO members then started to look at their own data on their exports to the EU and UK to see if they tallied.

What if there is no agreement by Brexit day? Some lawyers argue that so long as the UK and EU have constructed their proposed tariff quotas according to legal principles and the case history of WTO disputes, London and Brussels can simply go ahead without needing other countries’ approval. Objecting countries would struggle to win a legal challenge against the two in the WTO, according to this argument.

Other trade experts and experienced negotiators disagree. They believe a legal challenge might be possible, with the risk that trade could be disrupted. Some argue that WTO dispute settlement rulings are not always predictable. In this case the adjudicators would be asked how WTO law would handle tough questions such as “no worse off” and honouring “the existing access commitment”. The worst outcome would be a soured atmosphere leading to tit-for-tat restrictions on imports.

For the time being the point is moot. Those actually involved in the talks say they want to avoid both disruption to trade, and litigation in the WTO. That would require some sort of deal by Brexit day.

The UK’s and EU–27’s schedules of WTO commitments would not necessarily need to be certified in the WTO by that date. The EU has been trading smoothly despite its schedules for various phases of enlargement remaining uncertified for years. To work in practice, the UK and EU would have to have learnt from the negotiations what tariff quotas would be reasonably acceptable to the other WTO members concerned.

One other point that has received little attention: if other WTO members have tariff quotas that specify the EU as a supplier, then those quotas will have to be split between the UK and EU–27 too. But that’s another story.

Part 1 on WTO membership is here


Follow-up 1: Jochem Sprenger’s tweetsBack to top

After this article was published, Dutch Foreign Ministry official Jochem Sprenger tweeted:

Note “rectification”, which the US and others rejected.

The discussion included the UK asking the EU for help in transferring its free trade agreements with other countries (such as Canada and South Korea) to the UK, Sprenger went on.

And he confirmed that there was no attempt to include UK-EU trade in the tariff-quotas.

Then he said there is still no consensus on how to split the quotas. Only a “common letter”.

And finally he said the EU Commission should have published the UK-EU letter

The letter was published three days later on October 11 (pdf). It seems to confirm Sprenger’s tweets. “Rectification” does not appear in it, and nor does any specific reference to “modification” or negotiating rights. If the two sides (UK and EU versus other WTO members) haggle over the legal status of the talks, then we can expect delays to the discussion of the actual tariff quotas.

Follow-up 2: the October 16–20 talksBack to top

The first round of proper talks took place on the sidelines of the WTO Agriculture Committee meetings in the week of October 16–20. They were between the UK and EU together, and a selection of individual WTO members with the most interest in the tariff quotas.

The main purpose for the UK and EU was to present their data and explain their joint position. They also heard other countries’ reactions. Briefly, these issues emerged:

  • data: the immediate and tough challenge of how to arrive at figures that accurately reflect imports and subsidies separately in the UK and remaining EU–27, particularly for calculating how to split tariff quotas between them. This has been the focus of the first round of talks where a range of technical difficulties have arisen
  • tariff quotas and honouring “access” commitments: whether the UK and EU will be able to stick to their position that they can simply divide the present tariff quotas into UK and EU–27 portions while keeping the combined totals unchanged, in the face of opposition from some other WTO members
  • agricultural subsidies: how to divide the EU’s present entitlement between the UK and remaining EU–27
  • negotiating rights: whether the UK and EU should recognize other countries’ claim to legal rights to negotiate over the revised commitments — for the time being at least, this only seems to have been mentioned in passing

And on the data, among the objections raised by other WTO members were:

  • at least some of the data did not accurately reflect how much of EU imports went to the UK and how much to the EU–27
  • in some cases the proposed period of 2013–2015 was challenged because it could give exporting countries smaller quotas than if other years were used. Several delegations wanted to test the data for different and longer periods, including up to 2016, to see how that affects the outcome. Some rejected the argument that a three-year period is traditionally used in the WTO, countering that this is a process without precedent
  • some of the presentations were incomplete because they dealt with only a small proportion of tariff quotas allocated specifically to some countries
  • the way the quotas are administered — how they are allocated to individual companies or countries — could have distort the data

(A comprehensive report is available to subscribers of IEG Policy here.)


Updates:
• October 9, 2017 — adding new information from Jochem Sprenger’s tweets
• October 12, 2017 — adding UK-EU letter and references to it in the story
• November 21, 2017 — adding information on the October 16–20 first round of WTO talks
• November 25, 2017 — adding Australia’s concerns aired on the BBC’s Today programme
Photocredits
: Pixabay, Pexels CC0


UK, EU, WTO, Brexit primer — 1. WTO membership

Let’s keep this simple. What lies behind the sudden surge in interest in the UK’s and EU’s relationship with the World Trade Organization? First: the UK’s WTO membership

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 7, 2017 | UPDATED OCTOBER 10, 2017

Adam Sharpe is my editor at IEG Policy. On October 5, he emailed me. “I almost spat my coffee out,” Adam wrote, “when I turned on twitter and saw that ‘EU-UK WTO’ was trending this morning. Looks like TRQs are now ‘mainstream’.”

“EU-UK WTO” was trending because suddenly the media were reporting on some highly technical discussions related to the UK leaving the EU (Brexit) and the implications in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Room W, WTO
In the WTO, the EU generally speaks on behalf of its member states, including the UK

JUMP TO
The UK is a member
The UK will still be a member

The surge in interest was sparked by reports of a “breakthrough deal” in the separation talks between the UK and EU. The two were about to agree on a common position in the WTO. More reports followed almost immediately saying the US, New Zealand and some other WTO members rejected that position. This sparked a flood of comments, in many cases reflecting misunderstandings.

So here are a couple of primers on what this was all about. We’ll get to the “breakthrough deal” and those “TRQs” in part 2. First, the UK’s WTO membership.

The UK is a memberBack to top

The UK is and will continue to be a WTO member. All experts agree that it is a member. All but a tiny minority also agree that there will be no break in its membership when it leaves the EU. There will be negotiations with other WTO members, but that will only be about some of the terms of membership — the commitments the UK makes in the WTO — not membership itself.

UK signed WTO agreement
The UK signed the 1994 agreement setting up the WTO. From the UN Treaty Collection

What matters in practice is that for now at least, all other WTO member governments accept the UK will continue to be a member. They are the ones who count because the WTO is run by them, and it’s the members that the UK will be dealing with.

For what it’s worth, the WTO Secretariat, also shares the view. Director-General Roberto Azevêdo has said it on several occasions including in an interview with the BBC’s Stephen Sakur (partial transcript here). But it’s not the Secretariat’s decision.

The WTO was originally the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The UK helped create GATT in 1948 and was therefore a founder-member. Then in 1973, the UK joined what is now the EU.

Then, in 1995 the WTO was created out of the GATT system. The EU became a member of the new organisation. So did the member states. Right now, the WTO has 164 members. The EU is 29 — the EU itself plus each of its 28 member states.

Because the EU has a common commercial policy, in the WTO it generally speaks on behalf of its member states (including the UK, France, Germany, etc). The member states do speak independently on issues such as administration and the budget, but not on the bulk of WTO affairs.

This is one reason why people are confused about the UK’s WTO membership. Because the EU is a member it’s easy to think that by leaving the union, Britain will also lose WTO membership. That is not the case. The UK is a member in its own right.

The UK will still be a memberBack to top

The other source of confusion is the fact that the UK will have to negotiate something in the WTO. In fact, so will the EU, whose membership has not been questioned.

The UK will not be negotiating membership. It will be negotiating some of its promises to other WTO members.

This is linked to confusion about WTO “rules”. A common misunderstanding is that if London and Brussels cannot agree on a bilateral free trade arrangement, then trade between them will fall back on “WTO rules”, in practice tariffs and quotas.

To understand why this is a misunderstanding, we have to distinguish between the system’s “rules” and its members’ “commitments”.

Marrakesh Ministerial Conference 1994 end of Uruguay Round
Rules and commtiments: WTO agreements at the signing ceremony, Marrakesh, 1994. The rule book is on the far left. The rest are more than 20,000 pages of the original 123 members’ individual commitments

The WTO rule book is about 500 pages long. Its contents are the agreements the membership has negotiated over the years since the 1940s. They cover a wide range of issues, applying to all members:

Each of these includes principles such as non-discrimination, obligations to make information available, and special treatment for developing countries.

Individual members’ commitments are also the result of negotiations, but they are different for each member. Currently, they probably run to around 30,000 pages. They list what each member has agreed to do to open its goods and services markets and to limit certain types of subsidies. It’s all negotiated and some do more than others.

The lists of commitments are called “schedules” because they usually start off with timetables for achieving what was agreed, for example to reduce a tariff in equal steps over 10 years from 25% to 15%. They limit how much a country can protect its domestic producers, so if the listed tariff is 15%, then that’s a maximum. The country is free to apply a tariff below 15% but if it wants to go above (as Ukraine has done recently with some of its tariffs), it has to renegotiate.

WTO membership therefore requires both accepting the rules and making individual commitments. Does the UK do both?

Yes, both. But it’s the commitments that are most immediately related to Brexit. They determine the conditions of the UK’s trade with the rest of the WTO, particularly for import tariffs, quotas, farm subsidies and services. And they are what the UK and EU will “fall back on” bilaterally if they do not have a free trade agreement of some kind.

As an EU member, the UK’s commitments are bundled with the EU’s. (If you really want to look at the gory details you can see these pages on goods and services schedules. You have been warned.)

To most people that means the UK’s commitments can be inferred from the EU’s. The EU’s present tariff ceiling on some types of shoes is 8%. That’s currently also the UK’s tariff ceiling for those types of shoes, and will continue to be after Brexit unless the UK wants to change it.

A tiny handful of people say that when the UK leaves the EU it will have to create its schedules of commitments from scratch. The UK’s schedules cannot be inferred from the EU’s. Therefore, according to this argument, if there is no agreement on the commitments on the day Britain leaves the union then it will not have schedules and therefore its membership will lapse.

But, as I said, for the time being at least, the people who count — WTO member governments — do not share that minority view.

In any case, if by Brexit day, March 29, 2019 — when the UK becomes an independent WTO member — a set of documents called schedules has been agreed in the WTO, then it won’t matter whether they should be seen as inferred or created from scratch.

Still, between now and Brexit day, some hard talking in the WTO lies ahead particularly for the UK, but also the EU.

The bargaining won’t be about the 8% tariff on shoes. It will be about the almost 300,000 tonnes of sheep and goat meat from New Zealand and elsewhere, which can now be imported duty-free into the EU. It will be about similar conditions for a range of other agricultural products.

These are the famous tariff-rate quotas (TRQs). I’ll look at them as simply as I can in part 2.


Updates: October 9, 2017 —  minor edit to make text clearer; October 10, 2017 — adding links on UK in the WTO
Photocredits
: the author