‘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)’

Originally published as one section in
Arbitration — the stop-gap when WTO appeals are unavailable

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 3, 2022 | UPDATED MAY 6, 2022

Turkey appealed a World Trade Organization dispute ruling on April 25, 2022, the first case of appeal-by-arbitration as a route to a second legal opinion on a ruling, when the WTO Appellate Body cannot function.

The appeal was lodged under a bilateral agreement with the EU on appeals in two specific legal disputes, where each had brought a case against the other.

The procedure that the EU and Turkey had agreed was similar but not the same as the more well-known Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arrangement (MPIA) set up by a group of 50 WTO members — 30% of the membership — but not including Turkey.

Continue reading “Alternative to the alternative: Turkey and EU use arbitration for WTO appeals”

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”

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?”

Hamid Mamdouh — WTO reform imperative: a possible way forward

Posted by Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 9, 2021 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 9, 2021

This is a short proposal on World Trade Organization (WTO) reform by Hamid Mamdouh, former director of the WTO Secretariat’s Trade in Services Division and a recent candidate to be WTO director-general.

Mamdouh proposes members start from overall principles and cover all three of the WTO’s main functions:

This should be done, he suggests, in a new working party to start work in the new year.

He is not alone. The EU Commission and Council have also floated the idea of a working group on WTO reform in a trade policy statement presented to the European Parliament on February 18, 2021 (page 18 of this). The EU is understood to be discussing the proposal privately with other delegations in Geneva.

Continue reading “Hamid Mamdouh — WTO reform imperative: a possible way forward”

The WTO is regularly in crisis, but this time could be different

The WTO Ministerial Conference is almost upon us. The chorus of calls for “WTO reform” puts too much emphasis on Geneva when the real solutions require fundamental changes in and between the capitals of its 164 members.

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

The Ministerial Conference had been “postponed indefinitely” on November 26, four days before it was due to start, as Switzerland tightened travel restrictions because of the new omicron COVID-19 variant

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED OCTOBER 30 AND NOVEMBER 26, 2021 | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY COSMOPOLITAN GLOBALIST SEPTEMBER 28, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, 2022

On December 8, 2019, The New York Times predicted the possible “end of the […] World Trade Organization itself.” Earlier, a Bloomberg headline spoke of a “fatal blow” to the WTO.

Two years later, the WTO is still up and running. Even the crisis in dispute settlement, where first-stage rulings can no longer be appealed — the cause of those doom-mongering news reports — has failed to stop it.

Yet the WTO does face serious problems. Dealing with them has become more urgent.

This piece was originally published in September. We are now only days away from when WTO ministers are due to meet in Geneva, where “WTO reform” is a major item on the agenda.

We have heard various upbeat statements from events like the G20 trade ministers’ October 12 meeting in Sorrento, the G7 ministers in London 10 days later, the optimistic sounds coming from Geneva, and apparently a new signal from Washington.


A cacophony of cans being kicked down the road

As the November 30–December 3 Ministerial Conference approached, activity increased, including from some ministers.

The US strengthened its call to talk.

Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng visited Geneva to rally delegations to produce “concrete outcomes on key initiatives” at the Ministerial Conference. She met the Ottawa Group of members working on WTO reform, the WTO director-general, the chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, ambassadors from India, South Africa, EU and Mauritius, and the US chargé d’affaires.

Nevertheless, the only likely deal to be struck is on services regulation among a small group of members. We are also told a last-minute WTO-wide breakthrough on fisheries subsidies might be possible — after 20 years of negotiation and at least one missed deadline. In reality a lot of difficult issues still remain at the last minute.

Aside from those two subjects, we remain sceptical that anything substantial will be delivered.

Continue reading or jump down the page to:
Round the clock activity | No stranger to crisis | The misunderstood role of the WTO | Dispute settlement | The real problem: low priority | ‘Reform’ and the ministerial conference | Two strands of WTO reform | Find out more

See also: Hamid Mamdouh — WTO reform imperative: a possible way forward

Continue reading “The WTO is regularly in crisis, but this time could be different”