Why it’s a mistake to talk about a ‘Swiss-style’ post-Brexit UK-EU deal

We struggle to grasp unfamiliar detail and nuance. So we invent labels and waste time and energy debating what they mean

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 21, 2022 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 23, 2022

Maybe it was because someone thought it would be a good idea to stick a label on where UK-EU relations might be heading now that the atmosphere between the two is widely reported to have improved. Or perhaps it was just because people were bored while waiting for the football World Cup to start.

Whatever the reason, “Swiss-style ties with Brussels” suddenly became big news over the weekend after the Sunday Times reported (November 20, 2022, paywalled, but some more detail here) that the British government is considering exactly that.

Reactions ranged from “Doubt it. EU hates its relationship with Switzerland & Switzerland hates its relationship with EU” (Mujtaba Rahman, here), to “when someone says ‘Swiss-style’ relationship, rather than hearing ‘a slightly better relationship [than] now’ everyone is like ‘LET ME GET MY NOTES’” (Sam Lowe, here).

The problem here is that “Swiss-style” is being used as shorthand. It’s a label, but one that’s misleading and not really explained. Both of the reactions above are valid, at least to some extent, but they are talking about different things.

Continue reading “Why it’s a mistake to talk about a ‘Swiss-style’ post-Brexit UK-EU deal”
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WTO agriculture negotiators face challenge of thinking outside the box(es)

Monday’s retreat is an attempt to produce fresh thinking that might break the deadlock in the two remaining pillars.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 23, 2022 | UPDATED OCTOBER 24, 2022

See also the report on the retreat (published October 26, 2022):
WTO agriculture retreat said strong on context but weak on give-and-take

Brain-storming. Blue sky thinking. Wiping the slate clean. Thinking outside the box. Pick your cliché. World Trade Organization (WTO) members’ ambassadors and agriculture attachés go on a “retreat” tomorrow (October 24) as they try to discover solutions where none have been found for over a decade.

The common impression is that the WTO agriculture negotiations have achieved nothing since they started almost a quarter of a century ago in 2000.

This is partly because after just over a year (in 2001), the talks were rolled into the newly launched and broader Doha Round of WTO negotiations. And now the Doha Round is widely considered to be dead.

Officially the position is more complicated. Some members say the Doha Round is over. Others say the original mandate continues — they refuse to endorse the end of the round.

In practice some parts of the Doha Round have been concluded, such as the Trade Facilitation and Fisheries Subsidies agreements. Other parts are in limbo or the talks have dried up, at least among the full membership. What has faded away is the idea of the talks as one unified package or “single undertaking”.

(An aside here. What almost no one has noticed is that the Trade Negotiations Committee of the WTO membership — with the director-general ex officio in the chair — still meets. This committee was set up specifically within the Doha Round. If the round has ended so should the Trade Negotiations Committee. That would also mean the director-general has no official position in any council or committee of the WTO membership.)

Continue reading “WTO agriculture negotiators face challenge of thinking outside the box(es)”

Türkiye and EU: appeal-by-arbitration cases leave questions about WTO law

Similar to the 50-member ‘Multi-party Interim Appeal Arrangement (MPIA)’, one ruling has been formally adopted, the other not

Originally published as
Alternative to the alternative: Turkey and EU use arbitration for WTO appeals
and previously as one section in
Arbitration — the stop-gap when WTO appeals are unavailable

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED AUGUST 30, 2022 | UPDATED SEPTEMBER 26, 2022

Türkiye told World Trade Organization members on August 29, 2022 that it would comply with dispute rulings that said it was violating WTO agreements by giving preferences to locally-produced pharmaceutical products, even though the rulings have not been formally adopted.

So far, the case is unique among WTO legal disputes. It is the first use of appeal-by-arbitration as a route to a second legal opinion on a ruling, while the WTO Appellate Body cannot function.

And because at the time arbitration was the only route open to Türkiye to appeal the case, neither the first-stage “panel” ruling, nor the findings in the appeal, have been formally adopted by the WTO’s membership.

This raises questions about the status of the rulings in WTO law. When a ruling has been formally adopted, governments (and others involved in trade) can assess with a degree of confidence whether similar policies or measures comply with WTO agreements.

When the membership has not adopted a ruling, that confidence is weakened, although some legal experts suggest the difference is small. The US treats non-adoption as significant without explaining why.

Continue reading “Türkiye and EU: appeal-by-arbitration cases leave questions about WTO law”

Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’?

The WTO director-general says she discouraged negotiators from trading give-and-take across issues

See also
WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next | The successful WTO Conference saw one big failure: agriculture | Our scorecards

By Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 21, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 21, 2022

Observers of multiple World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conferences felt gloomy early during the June 12–17 meeting, when Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala warned against mingling the issues.

She was reported to have urged ministers to make trade-offs within the same issue rather than across the package of issues.

In an interview with the Financial Times’ Alan Beattie (paywalled) she confirmed her approach.

“Sometimes, all this leveraging and cross connections between outcomes I think in the past has led to the failure to achieve anything, because then everything just doesn’t work and collapses. I was really determined from the get-go that wasn’t going to happen and I was trying to discourage members from linking one thing to another,” she said.


I was trying to discourage members from linking one thing to another

— Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,
Financial times

Those of us who analyse the WTO have a mental model of how members could reach agreement. When the process seems too slow, or it fails, analysts think: if the Secretariat or members could do it differently, then the obstacles could be overcome. This reasoning is counterfactual, meaning something that has not happened but might happen under different conditions.

Continue reading “Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’?”

Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?

The meaning of “success” is not the same for the Ministerial Conference’s organisers as it is for outsiders

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 9, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 12, 2022

How many times can a curtain go up and down? This is our second curtain-raiser for the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference, now rescheduled for June 12–15, 2022.

As we wrote when the meeting was postponed in late 2021, the WTO risks disappearing into a chasm of petty procedural wrangling over what to talk about, and how to move forward.

After delays in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, and more recently the threat to multilateralism posed by Russia, the fact of it happening at all will be taken as a success. But have WTO members been able to move closer to significant agreement on anything?

This time our curtain-raiser proposes some benchmarks for assessment. There’s even a scorecard at the end for anyone following along at home.

Continue reading “Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?”

Milestone or inchpebble? The first UK ‘trade deal’ with a US state, Indiana

It’s a non-binding memorandum of understanding and Indiana itself could hardly be less interested

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 29, 2022 | UPDATED MAY 31, 2022

“They said a US trade deal couldn’t be done. It can. We are doing it.”

That declaration by UK Minister of State for Trade Policy Penny Mordaunt is the headline on a piece she wrote on a partisan website to celebrate signing an agreement with the US state, Indiana.

But is it a “US trade deal”?

  • It is not with the “US”, but Indiana — a state with 2% of the US population (at 6 million slightly more than Yorkshire or Scotland), less than 2% of the US economy (GDP), and less than 1% of its area (ranked 38th of the 50 US states)
  • The actual “trade” content is minimal, when compared with what governments usually sign in trade agreements
  • “Deal” is misleading since this is not the conclusion of anything. It’s a memorandum of understanding (MoU) — or joint statement of intent — on future cooperation and on what future talks will cover. The way it’s presented stretches the meaning of “agreement” a lot.

The phrase “trade deal” is itself a problem.

Continue reading “Milestone or inchpebble? The first UK ‘trade deal’ with a US state, Indiana”

Alternative to the alternative: Turkey and EU use arbitration for WTO appeals

Similar but not the same as the 50-member ‘Multi-party Interim Appeal Arrangement (MPIA)’

This has now been republished as
Türkiye and EU: appeal-by-arbitration cases leave questions about WTO law — Similar to the 50-member ‘Multi-party Interim Appeal Arrangement (MPIA)’, one ruling has been formally adopted, the other not

Can a WTO member be expelled? No. But …

The response from almost all legal experts is simple: there are no provisions in the WTO agreements allowing expulsion or suspension

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 23, 2022 | UPDATED MARCH 26, 2022

Can a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) be expelled? The short answer is no. There is no legal means of doing that.

The question arises because of a number of calls to expel Russia, to suspend its membership or to suspend its ability to act in the WTO, in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Those three are not exactly the same. The first two — expulsion or suspending membership — are clearly legal issues. They require decisions by the WTO’s membership.

The response from almost all experts in WTO trade law is simple: there are no provisions in the WTO agreements that would allow expulsion or suspension.

Continue reading “Can a WTO member be expelled? No. But …”

‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO

Not done yet, but the group-of-four could give the WTO some long-awaited success

Updates
June 17, 2022 — members agree on the waiver at the Ministerial Conference.

From mid-May to June 10 — members work on the compromise draft and discuss further revisions. The text submitted to the Ministerial Conference is here. Earlier versions are here.

May 19, 2022 — An informal meeting to take stock of two days of real negotiation on the compromise among about 30 delegations on May 16 and 18, described by chair Lansana Gberie (Sierra Leone’s ambassador) as “arduous”.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged members on all sides to sort out their reservations over the proposed compromise, so that a deal on waiving some intellectual property protection for COVID-19 can be struck by the Jun 12-15 Ministerial Conference. See this Twitter thread.

May 3, 6 and 10, 2022 — The compromise text was finally put to the rest of the membership at a May 3 informal meeting — WTO news story, and the text (html or pdf) — and discussed in a May 6 formal intellectual property council meeting and in the General Council on May 10. Both bodies consist of the full WTO membership.

Members were non-committal about accepting or rejecting the text. But this compromise draft allowed them for the first time to agree broadly to start negotiating on a text in the search for a solution. None of the Quad presented the text as their own, just an attempt to secure an agreement.

See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and this earlier Twitter thread and WTO news story on the intellectual property council. The blog post below had been updated accordingly.

March 28, 2022 — Three of the “Quad” could still be consulting internally on whether to accept the compromise, according to Geneva trade sources.

South Africa is said to have told members in an informal General Council meeting on March 28 that the draft was still being discussed domestically. Only the EU is understood to have completed its internal processes and to have accepted the draft, while India and the United States had not yet confirmed their support for it.

The draft would still have to go to the full membership in the intellectual property council, but no date has been set for the council’s next meeting.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 17, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 17, 2022

Behind-the-scenes negotiations by four key members have raised the prospect of an agreement on intellectual property and the COVID-19 pandemic, which would also help lift the World Trade Organization out of one of its worst crises.


For nearly a year, the United States, […] has worked constructively with other WTO Members to facilitate discussions and bridge differences that might lead to […] consensus across the 164 Members of the World Trade Organization to help end the pandemic.

In the days ahead, […] we look forward to continuing our engagement with members of Congress and stakeholders as all WTO Members consider the text released by the WTO Director-General.

Statement by US ambassador to the WTO María Pagán, May 3, 2022

News broke in mid-March 2022 that the four — the EU, India, South Africa and the US — had agreed on a compromise text on waiving the obligation to protect intellectual property related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A slightly modified text was circulated to members on May 3, 2022. A cover letter from WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala summarised how the proposed compromise was negotiated.

Although members offered some initial reactions in meetings over the following week, it still had to be negotiated, agreed, and possibly amended by the WTO’s membership of 164. (See this twitter thread and this WTO news story on the General Council meeting, and earlier this Twitter thread and this WTO news story on the intellectual property council.)

Anything can happen in that process, but so far the compromise has not been rejected outright — it has been accepted as a basis for negotiations. After all, most of those driving the main positions are among the four.

The likelihood of a breakthrough was first reported by Priti Patnaik of Geneva Health Files on March 11.

A month earlier she had broken news of what turns out to be an important part of the compromise — to limit the countries eligible to use the waiver. She reported that India and China would be excluded and that India would resist. How accurate that was at the time is unconfirmed, but the outcome would exclude China and not India.

What are the implications of the proposed compromise? How does it fit into the earlier debate about the waiver? How does it differ from the original proposal?

These are some immediate thoughts. Underlying them are two fundamental questions. Both, in totally different ways, are important:

  • What would this do for dealing with the pandemic?
  • What would this do for the WTO?

Some of the answers will emerge when the full membership gets down to negotiating the compromise in the WTO body responsible for intellectual property, the TRIPS Council. (TRIPS is trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.)

Continue reading “‘Quad’ raise hopes of a COVID-19 deal and revival for the beleaguered WTO”

Ukraine invasion—what Russia and Belarus face in the WTO system: so far

The feasible actions are unilateral. Anything requiring formal decisions in the WTO such as suspending membership is likely to fail

This blog post contains a list of actions that countries have taken against Russia and Belarus. It will now only be updated occasionally. The point was to examine how they work, where WTO decisions might be needed and the implications, and how they relate to WTO provisions such as non-discrimination (MFN) or the security exceptions. That should be clearer now.

See these sources for closer monitoring:

Global Trade Alert

A considerably longer list of sanctions announced against Russia is available at Global Trade Alert. Many are outside the WTO system. Some may be within the system, such as export restrictions on dual-use products and restrictions on shipping services (but not air traffic rights). Russia’s retaliation is here.

Global Trade Alert was originally set up by Simon Evenett and his team at St Gallen University, Switzerland. It is now run by an independent foundation.

PIIE

Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) has created a timeline that tracks all the actions taken by various countries on all sides: Russia’s war on Ukraine: A sanctions timeline.

A number of other sources are available. This one (details paywalled) is Europe-centred.


By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 4, 2022 | UPDATED MAY 10, 2022 (SEE ALSO ENTRY DATES)

This is a summary of actions taken or proposed so far against Russia within the WTO system. Some are also against Belarus, which is not a WTO member.

They are deliberately described as “within the WTO system” and not “in the WTO” — or worse “by the WTO” — to avoid confusion.

Continue reading “Ukraine invasion—what Russia and Belarus face in the WTO system: so far”