EU makes initial proposals for WTO modernization

Alicia Nicholls

The European Commission has released a concept paper outlining its initial proposals for making the WTO more relevant and adaptive to current global realities and for strengthening its effectiveness.

The paper originates from a mandate given by the European Council to the European Commission. It was published days after G20 trade and investment ministers called for urgent WTO reform and a month after United States’ President Donald Trump renewed his desire to withdraw the US from the WTO. It also comes against the backdrop of an escalation in unilateralism as Washington readies to impose a further $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods imports.

In the paper, the Commission reiterates the EU’s “staunch” support of the multilateral trading system, noting that the 164-member WTO was “indispensable in ensuring free and fair trade”. It warns, however, that the WTO is under threat. It notes that the organisation’s current marginalisation by some of its key members stem from its failure to “adapt sufficiently to the rapidly changing global economy”.

The 17-page concept paper offers proposals under three key areas and is in effect three papers in one. These areas are: rulemaking and development, regular work and transparency and dispute settlement.

The Commission recommends that the EU continue to the work on the issues under the existing Doha mandate, but also states there is urgent need to broaden the negotiating agenda, building on several initiatives launched at the Buenos Aires Ministerial held in December 2017. Lamenting the current inadequacy of the WTO’s Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM), the Commission calls for improved transparency and subsidy notifications, rules which better capture subsidies granted by state-owned enterprises and stricter rules for the most trade-distortive types of subsidies.

The Commission recommends updating current trade rules on services and investment, and further reduce existing market access barriers and discriminatory treatment of foreign investors. One issue of which the Commission was particularly critical was the need to tighten rules on forced technology transfer – practices by some States which force foreign investors to directly or indirectly share their technological innovations with the State or domestic investors. Indeed, intellectual property rights issues are a major sore point between US and China trade relations.

The Commission also sounds the alarm about the “grave danger” to the WTO’s dispute settlement system posed by the US’ blocking of Appellate Body judge appointments. By end of September, the Appellate Body would have only the minimum (just three judges on its roster) and by December 2019 will have less than the minimum required to hear an appeal as two more retire. As such, the Commission has made some initial proposals for amendments which would take into account many of the US’ concerns with the WTO dispute settlement system which had been outlined in the President’s Trade Policy Agenda for 2018. For example, the Commission has suggested amending the 90-days rule contained in Article 17.5 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding to provide for more transparency and consultation.

The Commission has made clear that the proposals were meant to be a basis for discussion with the EU Parliament, the Council and other WTO members, and did not prejudice the EU’s final positions on the matters.

The concept paper makes for an interesting read and may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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