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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‘Notification and review’ sounds dull but is essential for WTO reform

The proposal would apply to notifications under 14 agreements and decisions covering almost the whole of trade in goods

Posted by Peter Ungphakorn
JULY 18, 2022 | UPDATED JULY 27, 2022

On July 14, 2022, a group of 57 World Trade Organization member governments renewed their effort to strengthen work that is essential for the WTO to functioning properly — transparency.

They circulated the latest version of their proposal on notifications. It’s an activity most people find deadly dull, but without it the WTO’s trading system simply would not work.

The proposal is certainly the least glamorous part of the effort to “reform” the WTO, one of the priorities that WTO trade ministers set for themselves and their Geneva delegations at their June 2022 conference.

Continue reading “‘Notification and review’ sounds dull but is essential for WTO reform”

WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next

It might seem churlish to draw attention to what was lacking, but the achievements that were rightly hailed are not the end of the story.

See also
The successful WTO Conference saw one big failure: agriculture | Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’? | Our scorecards

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 30, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 30, 2022

As a beautiful sun rose over the World Trade Organization’s lakeside headquarters in Geneva on June 17, 2022, exhausted delegates sealed a package of decisions and declarations that would give the beleaguered WTO new direction for the next couple of years.

Much has already been written about the achievement of the 12–17 June WTO Ministerial Conference, after it was extended by almost two days of sometimes chaotic round-the-clock bargaining.

Most of the analysis focuses on what was achieved, often with a sense of relief that the WTO was back on track, mixed with a warning that much still needs to be done.

Perhaps the biggest success was that a package was agreed by ministers, including an Outcome Document — which the previous ministerial conference failed to do.

Often missing is recognition of how hard it was to achieve this limited outcome.

Continue reading “WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next”

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”

Pre-ministerial draft shows little to harvest in WTO farm talks

21 years of talking with little sign of convergence on remaining topics in agriculture

UPDATES
See “WTO farm talks head into 2022 with lots of ‘will’ but not much ‘way’
and May 31, 2022, pre-Ministerial Conference drafts (agriculture decision, food security declaration, and exempting the World Food programme from export restrictions decision)

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 9, 2021 | UPDATED JUNE 8, 2021

A week bef0re the now-postponed World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference was due to start, WTO agriculture negotiators received a revised draft from Gloria Abraham Peralta, Costa Rica’s ambassador and the talks’ chair.

The new assessment and draft text is still in the form of a proposed decision for the ministers. It was circulated on November 23, 2021. The conference was postponed three days later on November 26. It was due to take place on November 30–December 3.

The new text was slimmed down from the 27 pages of the July 29 text, to 16 pages, still covering eight topics. This was not because gaps between members’ positions had narrowed. Rather, some issues had proved so intractable that the chair had simply thrown out large chunks of text.




[Public stockholding] has turned out to be the most difficult issue in the agriculture negotiations

— Gloria Abraham Peralta

The page-count was also reduced by combining eight separate draft decisions into one single text.

One commentator has slammed the draft for being completely empty.

“It has absolutely nothing in it. Basically, it says: We will negotiate on market access. We will negotiate on export competition. We will negotiate on domestic support. And not much else,” wrote Australian trade lawyer Brett Williams on the International Economic Law and Policy Blog.

That is a bit harsh. WTO members and their chair had worked hard in the previous months.

Continue reading “Pre-ministerial draft shows little to harvest in WTO farm talks”

NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?

If only the authors had read the minutes to see what WTO members are actually saying

BEFORE I BEGIN
I know. This is asking for trouble. Commenting critically on the letter will trigger accusations (again) that I am an “enemy” of the “TRIPS waiver” and happy to see people die from the pandemic. Neither is true.

For those who believe outright that the WTO is evil and that intellectual property protection is its devilish handmaiden, there is no point in reading this. They are immune to complexity and facts. Sadly, too much of the NGO letter adopts that tone.

But if we are interested in looking beyond the rhetoric at what is really happening between countries in the WTO, then the letter misses its target. A few delegations may use it as a weapon in the debate. Others, rather than being persuaded by the letter, will simply dismiss it on the grounds that “they don’t know what they are talking about”, particularly on what the reality is in the WTO.

On one point I agree with the letter: the complaint about reduced facilities for non-governmental organisations at WTO ministerial conferences. The more access they have, the better informed they will be.

(Note this now has a link to David Walker’s November 22, 2021 draft)

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 23, 2021 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 26, 2021

Two weeks before the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference, over 80 non-governmental organisations wrote to WTO director-general Nogozi Okonjo-Iweala and all WTO members, slamming “sham” work on trade and COVID-19 at the expense of poorer countries.

The letter (full text below) also opposed current moves to reform the way the WTO works, particularly the increased use of negotiations among subsets of the membership when consensus is elusive among the full membership.

The endorsing organisations include some international heavyweights such as Amnesty and Oxfam, alongside a long list of national groups — health, poverty-alleviation and environmental campaigners, labour unions and more.

Their strongly-worded attack lands direct hits on two issues that are important for Okonjo-Iweala herself.

It also misrepresents how many developing countries see their own interests on these subjects. It has failed to look properly at what is actually going on, what countries themselves have said, and it condemns processes that many developing countries consider to be essential.

Continue reading “NGO letter on COVID-19 and WTO reform — persuasive or to be ignored?”

New agriculture draft suggests nervousness in divided WTO

Never before in 21 years of the WTO agriculture negotiations has a chair’s text been circulated as a secret document

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JULY 30, 2021 | UPDATED SEPTEMBER 18, 2021

This has now been revised throughout, based on the actual text

As the World Trade Organization began its 2021 summer break, Gloria Abraham Peralta, Costa Rica’s ambassador and WTO agriculture negotiations chair, circulated her first draft negotiating text, stressing that delegates will need to move quickly to compromise and make a difference to people’s lives.

The 27-page draft, covering eight topics, is designed to focus negotiators’ attentions on what might be agreed at the November 30–December 3 WTO Ministerial Conference, three months after they return in September. It shows members are as divided as ever with little convergence after months of work.

The text is not a public document, but it has been leaked. It was circulated on July 29, 2021 as a restricted document, the first time a chair has done that since the agriculture negotiations began over two decades ago, in 2000.

Continue reading “New agriculture draft suggests nervousness in divided WTO”

Down a rabbit hole in search of the Wensleydale deal with Norway

Transparency doesn’t just mean making information available. It means making it accessible and understandable

Rabbit hole noun

A complexly bizarre or difficult state or situation conceived of as a hole into which one falls or descends
I wanted to show this woman descending into the rabbit hole: this loss of self, becoming a servant to her job and to the work — Jessica Chastain

Especially : One in which the pursuit of something (such as an answer or solution) leads to other questions, problems, or pursuits
— While trying to find the picture again on Google, I fell down the Cosmo rabbit hole, scrolling through a gallery of swimwear, then through “How to Be Sexier-Instantly” and then through all 23 slides of “Sexy Ideas for Long Hair.” — Edith Zimmerman

Merriam Webster Dictionary online

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 8, 2021 | UPDATED JUNE 9, 2021

This is a cautionary tale about just how difficult it is to crack the secret codes of trade agreements. We can ask a simple question: how will the agreement change trade in a particular product. To reach the answer we often have to venture out into a wonderland of obscure paths and hidden traps.

Does it matter? Yes, if we want to find out for ourselves what is in the agreement. Bob Wolfe and I have argued at length about the need for more transparency in trade. This is true of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is part of the rabbit warren. It is also true of free trade agreements.

Transparency doesn’t just mean making information available. It means making it accessible and understandable. Tracking down tariff commitments can be a nightmare, as this story shows.

Continue reading “Down a rabbit hole in search of the Wensleydale deal with Norway”

The UK’s rolled-over deals after the Brexit transition

UK trade agreements with non-EU countries on January 1, 2020

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 1, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 4, 2021

On January 1, 2021, Britain left the EU Single Market and customs union. That meant the EU’s free trade agreements with non-EU countries no longer applied to the UK.

The British government has negotiated, at speed, “roll-over” agreements with those non-EU countries in order to reproduce the effects of those agreements as much as possible so that continuity is maximised for UK business.

This article does not look at the contents or depth of the deals. It simply counts how many of the EU’s free trade agreements have been “rolled over” into continuity agreements with the UK, and how many have not been done.

Continue reading “The UK’s rolled-over deals after the Brexit transition”