WTO Reform — A Push by the Secretariat for Engagement by the Members; Articulation of EU Priorities



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade


The WTO has been struggling to restore its relevance in a rapidly changing global market but with limited success due to the challenges facing its negotiating arm. Those challenges are accentuated by the major tensions between three of the largest Members (U.S., EU and China) with the U.S. and EU having fundamental differences on the role of dispute settlement and with the US and EU and Japan having deep concerns about the trade distorting policies of China that are not adequately addressed by current WTO rules. The need for broad reform seems to be recognized by many WTO Members, though priorities for reform vary widely by Member or groups of Members. The WTO is working through its selection process for a new Director-General following the early departure of the last Director-General, Roberto Azevedo. The candidates vying for the Director-General slot have faced many questions on how they would help promote reform and deal with long festering issues. The distrust within the WTO membership generally and between the largest Members in particular resulted in the Members being unable to agree on an acting Director-General, so the WTO is operating without a Director-General at the present time though in a statement today to the G20 Trade Ministers, Deputy Director-General Alan Wm. Wolff, is listed as “Joint Acting Director-General”.

A push by the Secretariat for greater engagement by Members in the reform process

Because the WTO is a member-driven organization, the key to reform is for Members to come forward with proposals, for the membership to discuss proposed reforms, and for Members to look for areas where there are common interests or shared expectations.

The Secretariat can encourage Members to engage. At the present time, Deputy Director-General Wolff (DDG Wolff) has been making numerous statements to different groups encouraging engagement to move the reform process forward and highlighting the role the WTO can play in environmental and development of circular economies.

Specifically, between September 17 and today, September 22, DDG Wolff has given virtual statements to five groups. The first three were on September 17 and were to Business Europe on trade and climate change, to the Economic Times Packaging Virtual Summit (India) on packaging issues in trade including plastics pollution and moving to circular economies, and to the World Knowledge Forum in Korea on trade disputes between major trading powers and calling on all countries to work to improve WTO rules and recognizing that even where there are major differences between Members, there are common interests as well. See DDG Wolff: “Trade policies have a huge potential to support climate action,” https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_18sep20_e.htm; DDG Wolff: WTO members addressing implications of plastics pollution, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw2_17sep20_e.htm; DDG Wolff: Time for all countries to work to improve the rules of multilateral trade, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_17sep20_e.htm. The conclusion from the statement to the World Knowledge Forum gives a good summary: “As for the WTO, the demands are clear. It is time to consider needed reforms, to bring to life the negotiating forum that the founders of the WTO envisaged, to find a way forward to a single agreed binding dispute settlement system that all can support, and to strengthen the institution more generally. The support of the largest Members along with their trading partners will be necessary to succeed. Crises have in the past opened up new opportunities for making progress in building the world trading system and can do so now again.”

On September 21, DDG Wolff made comments to the Trade Law Center for Southern Africa. DDG Wolff: WTO reform crucial to restoring confidence in the trading system, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_21sep20_e.htm. His statement was entitled, “A WTO fit for the 21st century trade governance”. The following excerpt goes through some of the reform issues that are already being teed up:

The last major update of the WTO rule book took place during the Uruguay Round. These negotiations were concluded in Marrakesh in April 1994, just as the world was beginning to hear of the internet. The world has changed over these last 25 years in ways that could scarcely have been imagined. Not only has technology revolutionized how we trade but even the main actors in the global economy have changed with new groundbreaking economic and business models.

Ongoing WTO reform efforts will be crucial to restoring confidence in the system’s ability to meet the needs of its users and adapt to changing economic realities. However, the full range of challenges as well as opportunities that the WTO’s membership faces cannot, and will not, be addressed overnight. More proposals need to be tabled and discussed, on how to update the WTO to enhance its effectiveness and assure that it evolves alongside changes in world trade.

Trade rules will have to adapt to economic transformations such as the fourth industrial revolution, characterized as the advent of ‘cyberphysical systems’ involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines. If they do not, the likely outcome is unilateral action and fragmentation, which means unpredictability and higher costs for business, especially micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). International cooperation can offer a path forward to a global economy where everyone can participate and benefit.

Currently, WTO members are progressing on multiple fronts. At the multilateral level, they are working to reach an agreement that would limit fisheries subsidies and contribute to the health of our oceans. They are looking at how to liberalize and reduce distortions in agriculture trade.

At the same time, groups of WTO members are considering potential future rules on investment facilitation, e-commerce and on domestic regulations that can unnecessarily obstruct services trade. These ‘joint statement’ initiatives, as they are called, address issues at the heart of the 21st century world trade. They also represent a quiet revolution in the way governments negotiate at the WTO. Like-minded members are free to pursue issues of interest; the initiatives are open to all Members, but no Member is required to join. As one example, the e -commerce talks, bring together 82 members, accounting for around 90% of global trade. Establishing joint rules of the game would facilitate electronic transactions and digital trade and could help manage wider tensions over technology.

WTO Members must deliver on both the multilateral front and the joint initiatives as these are vital for the future of the system. For the road ahead, the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference, next year in Kazakhstan, will be a key landmark. It must deliver credible agreements and map the way for further reforms.” [Emphasis added]

And then today, September 22, DDG Wolff spoke to the G20 trade ministers urging them to step up engagement on WTO reform. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_22sep20_e.htm. DDG Wolff’s statement is reproduced below:

“Thank you, Chair. 

This is a time of great challenges for the world trading system as well as of great opportunities.

 World trade has fallen by 18% compared to last year.

Shortfalls in key medical supplies persist, despite icreased production – and increased trade. Preliminary figures indicate that global trade in products such as personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and ventilators grew by close to 30% in the first half of the year.

While some trade restrictions have already been rolled back, particularly with respect to foodstuffs, the pandemic is far from over and economic challenges will persist.

The roll-back of trade restrictions may already be losing momentum.

Government support needed to fight the economic downturn could end up distorting competitive conditions and fueling future trade tensions.

However, fresh opportunities also exist.

The WTO’s Members are well-advanced in the process of selecting a new WTO Director-General. 

Renewed engagement of the WTO’s Members can ensure that the WTO is fully ready to meet the challenges of a changing global economy.

As the pandemic continues, emergency trade-restrictive measures should be reviewed through the lens of the G20’s criteria that existing measures are, in fact, targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary; members should begin to unwind those that are no longer absolutely necessary. 

Existing negotiations to modernize the WTO’s rules to meet the challenges of the global digital economy and to provide for sustainable development should be brought to a successful conclusion.

The process of systemic reform, called for by the G20 leaders and trade ministers, should begin in earnest with WTO Members deliberating concrete proposals, restoring the WTO to its intended place

where negotiations are successfully concluded;

where disputes are settled within a universally accepted structure; 

actively served by a strong, dedicated, professional Secretariat. 

In an era of political and economic stress, the WTO must be made fit for purpose.  It must be seen to deliver fairness to all who participate in or are affected by global commerce. 

A robust, sustained and inclusive economic recovery requires open and predictable international trade, supported by a well-functioning world trading system.  

Spurred by the determination expressed by you as trade ministers, informed by the Riyadh Initiative, under a new leader, the WTO can fulfill its promise.”

Will Members Come Forward With Proposals and Work for Reform?

As reviewed in prior posts, there have been many proposals for reform floated by individual Members and there are important initiatives underway either multilaterally (fisheries subsidies) or plurilaterally (Joint Statement Initiatives). The U.S., EU and Japan have been working for several years on proposals dealing with industrial subsidies, state owned enterprises and forced technology transfer. No proposals on these topics have yet been submitted by these Members.

The U.S. and others have presented proposals for improved transparency on notifications. The U.S. has pushed for changes to which Members are entitled to special and differential treatment and has pushed for addressing whether economies that are not market economies can be disciplined within the WTO under the existing rules. The U.S. has also shut down the Appellate Body based on longstanding concerns with deviations by the Appellate Body (AB) from the limited mandate provided the AB by the Dispute Settlement Understanding. The U.S. has also raised concerns about the structure of bound tariffs noting the high rates of many Members with rapid rates of economic development, but the U.S. has not made a specific proposal to address its concerns on this matter as of yet.

Other proposals from other Members have also been made.

In remarks made by the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis on September 21 at the informal meeting of EU trade ministers, Mr. Dombrovskis outlined the EC’s objectives for the WTO including reform. The link to Mr. Dombrovskis’ speech is here, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_20_1720:

“Let me start with the WTO, which is currently selecting its new Director General.

“The discussions today have shown strong agreement amongst ministers that the EU needs a Director General, who is capable of managing a profound reform of the organization.

“This reform should focus on three main things:

“1. Fixing the dispute settlement system,

“2. Reinitiating global trade negotiations,

“3. Addressing the current challenges of international trade, in particular sustainability and the need for a level-playing field.

“To be credible, the new leader of the WTO:

“1. must enjoy the trust of WTO members and

“2. be able to present balanced views that reflect the diverse nature of the WTO Membership.

“The EU will view the remaining five candidates in this light.”

The three broad categories of reform that the EU supports were discussed at some greater length in EC President von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech earlier this month. The trade elements of the speech were reviewed in an earlier post. See September 18, 2020:  Trade elements of EC President von der Leyen’s State of the Union address at the European Parliament plenary on 16 September 2020, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/09/18/trade-elements-of-ec-president-von-der-leyens-state-of-the-union-address-at-the-european-parliament-plenary-on-16-september-2020/.

There should be a joint statement from the G20 trade ministers later today which presumably will similarly reemphasize the need for moving WTO reform forward.

What isn’t clear is whether the collective understanding of the need for reform will actually result in serious reform efforts in the coming years. The large differences in views of Members, the serious lack of trust among Members, and the apparent lack of an ongoing common vision of the purpose of the WTO are major impediments to forward movement, just as they have been in the last two decades.


All of the candidates to become the next Director-General of the WTO understand the need for major reform to maintain or restore the WTO’s relevance. The WTO Secretariat continues to do its support part to articulate the value and need for reform and to encourage Members to conclude negotiations that are underway and to come forward with concrete proposals for the membership to discuss and consider.

While there are many proposals for reform that have been presented, Members have put proposals forward on a somewhat ad hoc basis and without a more formal process for compiling and considering the proposals. The major economies are at very different positions on many reform agenda items that have been identified, though there is some commonality among at least several of the majors on a few reforms. Other than fisheries subsidies and some of the Joint Statement Initiatives, other reforms seem unlikely to occur in the next several years. If that proves to be correct, the WTO will likely suffer a continued drift towards irrelevance.

Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.

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