Are retreats the new pandemic at the World Trade Organization?

Following the ‘success’ in June, the new enthusiasm for ‘retreats’ suggests WTO members don’t actually know what to do

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 8, 2022 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 13, 2022

An epidemic of retreats is breaking out at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

On Monday October 10, 2022, WTO members gathered in Evian in France (cross the lake and turn left) to talk about fish. A fortnight later they were back on the Geneva shore to discuss agriculture. Not long after, they talked about “WTO reform”.

There’s even a call to do the same on intellectual property. The list is getting longer. The epidemic could become a pandemic.

Continue reading “Are retreats the new pandemic at the World Trade Organization?”
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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”

Does ‘holding the pen’ give WTO staff too much power over disputes?

WTO REFORM: The light shed by recent papers on the role of the Secretariat is welcome, but there are unanswered questions

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED AUGUST 22, 2022 | UPDATED SEPTEMBER 28, 2022

Does the WTO Secretariat have too much influence over WTO dispute settlement rulings? Two experts argue controversially in recent papers that it does, backing their claims with sophisticated analysis of writing styles to detect who might have authored the rulings.

The analysis by Joost Pauwelyn (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva) and Krzysztof Pelc (McGill University, Montreal) also digs down in detail into the reasons behind the role that the Secretariat has been given.

That leads to a discussion covering a wide range of issues, some of them central to the debate about reforming the WTO and its dispute settlement system — including the controversy over whether case history and precedent should have a bearing on new rulings, and to what extent that should be guided by the institutional knowledge of Secretariat staff.

Continue reading “Does ‘holding the pen’ give WTO staff too much power over disputes?”

‘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?”

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 …”

US politicians call for trade action against Russia in the WTO

Kicking Russia out of the World Trade Organization is probably impossible, but other actions are available

Painting (detail) by Chris Edmund © used with permission

See also:
List of measures announced or proposed
that come under the WTO system, periodically updated
Can a WTO member be expelled? No. But …

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 28, 2022 | UPDATED MARCH 4, 2022

Two senior US politicians announced on February 25, 2022 that they were introducing legislation to suspend World Trade Organization terms in US trade with Russia and to seek expelling Russia from the WTO.

Lloyd Doggett, chair of the House of Representatives Ways and Means subcommittee on health, and Earl Blumenauer, his counterpart on the subcommittee on trade, proposed the bill following Russia’s “unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”.

Since then, at least three similar bills have been proposed in the US Senate.

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Canada have actually implemented action against Russia within in the WTO system, and the EU has said it is considering its own action.

The Doggett and Blumenauer bill would make it easier for the US to impose trade sanctions against imports of Russian goods, in addition to the commercial, financial and personal sanctions the US and its allies have already initiated. That includes new EU sanctions in trade with Belarus (not a WTO member).

The bill would also “seek the suspension of the Russian Federation’s membership in the WTO”, a more difficult prospect.

Continue reading “US politicians call for trade action against Russia in the WTO”

Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference

WTO members have more time to deal with issues that they might, at a pinch, agree on, but momentum could be lost too

New dates
On February 23, 2022, WTO members meeting as the General Council
agreed to reschedule the Ministerial Conference for the week of June 13

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED DECEMBER 6, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, 2022

What was lost by postponing the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference? Procedurally, not much. What happens next depends on whether WTO members make the best of the opportunity.

Before the conference was scheduled to start, we argued that the solutions to the impasse in the WTO must come from the capitals of the WTO’s 164 members before anything significant can be done at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters — in effect: “reform in capitals before reforming the WTO in Geneva”.

We still think that, but at least momentum has been created in some governments. The danger is that this opportunity will be lost.

Continue reading “Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference”