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Reforming the WTO is a Long and Complicated Process

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Since early autumn 2018, the issue of reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO) has become an increasingly visible item on the global economic agenda. It was one of the central questions posited in the final communique of the G20 Summit that took place in Buenos Aires on November 30 – December 1, and the parties intend to tackle it again at the next meeting in Tokyo.

The WTO is traditionally considered the third institution of the Bretton Woods system. However, while the first two – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) – started functioning shortly after the end of World War II, it took 47 years of excruciating negotiations to create the third part, a universal trade organization. The establishment of the WTO in April 1994 following the Uruguay Round of negotiations (1986–1993) should rightly be considered the greatest event in economic relations in the 20th century. However, the tremendous success had a certain reverse side: contradictions and issues between member countries remained. This predetermined the future need to reform the WTO.

Trade Wars are a Signal for Action

The problem of the institutional reform of the WTO has been discussed at the level of experts for at least the last 15 years. However, it has never gone beyond the scope of an academic discussion, and for serious reasons too. The older generation of trade diplomats and experts remembers all too well the excruciating negotiations at the Uruguay Round, which were accompanied by crippling crises and contradictions between the parties. Hammering out compromises was a Herculean task, and the agreement on establishing the WTO crowned those compromises.

It is precisely because of these features of the WTO’s protracted birth that representatives of various countries, recognizing the need to reform the organization, were fully cognizant of how difficult and risky such a reform will be in practice. That is why each and every time discussions ended the same way: the GATT/WTO system has been functioning for 70 years, and even though it has its problems, no one can guarantee that a reform will not make things worse. Nowadays, the situation has been noticeably radicalized due to the new U.S. protectionist policies and the trade wars it started “with the entire world.”

The Administration of the 45th US President has embarked upon a course of open criticism and attacks on universal trade rules. In late February 2017, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) delivered the Trade Policy Agenda and Annual Report to Congress. The document emphasized that given the “unfair trade practices” of other countries, the United States can disregard the WTO rules and conduct a more “aggressive” trade policy in protecting its national interests.

On June 1, 2018, Washington imposed increased import tariffs on metals from the European Union, Canada and some other countries to 25 per cent for steel and 10 per cent for aluminium. The current U.S. administration believes that domestic steel production has fallen sharply in the recent years, and this threatens national security. However, Europe and Canada see the legal justification for Washington to increase tariffs as being completely unacceptable.

Partners Reject U.S. Protectionist Measures

Within the WTO, each country has its commitments based on the rules developed during the Uruguay Round. These rules allow import restrictions in three very specific situations: in cases of dumping; the use of illegal subsidies; and if there is a threat to national industries due to a sharp increase in imports. In each case, the damage from the above-stated actions of a supplier country must be substantiated. The damage is assessed in the course of an appropriate transparent investigation that involves all the parties. The current U.S. measures do not fit into any of these scenarios, and instead it is being justified by “reasons of national security.” This, however, gives the matter an entirely different legal twist.

The WTO legal framework does stipulate restricting market access for reasons of national security: appropriate measures are possible in cases of illegal trade in weapons and nuclear materials, the danger of armed conflicts, a terrorist threat, etc. Therefore, in such cases, every state itself determines the measures for restricting access to its market under Article XXI of GATT, which is devoted entirely to “reasons of national security.” The difficulty with applying Article XXI of GATT is that its application mechanism is still not quite specific; a state that introduces restrictions under this article acts as the ultimate judge in the dispute.

The United States offers a very subjective formulation of “reasons of national security” that is clearly detached from the current international rules. Washington sees a threat to national security in the sharp drop in domestic metal production, even though such a situation is essentially a consequence of regular international competition.

European countries and Canada were shocked by the fact that the United States imposes tariffs against them out of “reasons of national security.” As the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker emphasized, “these unilateral U.S. tariffs are unjustified and at odds with World Trade Organization rules. This is protectionism, pure and simple.” President of France Emmanuel Macron called the U.S. administration’s decision illegal and mistaken. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau spoke rather sharply at the June 2018 G7 Summit in Quebec calling Washington’s measures “punitive,” “unacceptable” and “insulting.”

Following repeated attempts to convince Washington that its protectionist measures were unfounded, in late November 2018, the European Union, along with China, Canada, Norway, Mexico, Russia and Turkey, and then India and Switzerland filed a complaint against the United States with the WTO’s Appellate Body concerning the illegality of the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the United States. In the complaint, the plaintiffs intend to challenge the U.S. tariffs as protective and simultaneously prove that the United States cannot invoke reasons of national security. This demarche against the United States by nine countries at once is a rather convincing proof that the WTO’s leading members are resisting Washington’s attempts to revise the existing rules of international trade.

Thus, the U.S. administration believes that it can protect its domestic market and ensure its foreign trade interests on the basis of its domestic trade legislation. Over the course of 2018, Washington primarily invoked two legislative acts. Under the Trade Act of 1974, the United States can impose penalty tariffs on countries that discriminate against American goods. The second is the 1962 Trade Expansion Act that allows the United States to restrict import of goods that would “threaten to impair the national security.” This act served as a legal justification for Washington to increase import tariffs on steel and aluminium starting June 1, 2018.

Europe, Canada and Japan believe that using legal acts that are over 50 years old is odd at the very least, since in the intervening decades, international economic regulations have changed drastically, the principal change being the emergence of a full-fledged multilateral regulation institution, i.e. the WTO, which was to a great degree promoted by the United States. Strictly speaking, the moment the WTO became operative in January 1995, the United States did not invoke the provisions of those domestic acts since it believed itself to be bound, like other WTO members, by the WTO’s commitments.

Every Side has its Arguments on Reforming the WTO

In March 2018, the United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer presented the latest version of the U.S. administration’s annual agenda in trade policies. The agenda concerns such issues as reforming the WTO, trade agreements with other countries and the application of U.S trade laws. The document is critical of the trade policies of previous administrations and simultaneously claims to reach a qualitatively new level in trade policies under the Trump administration.

Lighthizer’s report states that the U.S. administration is dissatisfied with the existing rules and their application in such areas as labour conditions, competition policies and the medical equipment market. It notes the investigations of U.S. officials into China’s violations of U.S. intellectual property rights. In essence, the report justifies instances of applying U.S. trade laws from the 1960s–1970s in order to protect national security interests, which cannot but cause concerns, since these laws are applied separately from the WTO rules and the commitments that the United States has undertaken as part of the organization.

As for the current multilateral negotiations at the Doha Round, Washington has specific grievances in that area, which may be considered justified to a certain extent. For instance, the United States is not satisfied with their highly stilted character, the impossibility of achieving new agreements other than at the biennial WTO ministerial conferences, and what the United States views as the outdated agenda of the Doha Round.

What is more, in recent years, the United States has not hidden its displeasure with the position of a large group of countries within the WTO which, having joined the organization as developing countries, continue to see themselves as such today, despite the fact that they have made significant progress in a number of economic sectors and even outstripped certain developed countries. In addition to this, many developing countries have non-transparent trade policies. Consequently, those WTO members de facto use privileges that Washington deems to be unjustified, which blocks progress in developing new WTO rules and also impedes further liberalization. This is the essence of Washington’s approach to reforming the WTO: eliminate unjustified and unfair privileges held by a group of developing countries that today essentially paralyse the multilateral trade system.

As for the other major player in international trade – the European Union – it has assumed a highly proactive stance on the issue of reforming the WTO. The European Union was the first to publish a list of specific proposals (a concept) on reforming the WTO. Analysing the entire list is rather a task for trade policy experts. It would therefore be appropriate to single out the key points. Even though the European Union’s stance was originally a direct consequence of the wrongfully protectionist measures of the United States towards European manufacturers, the document contains no direct or indirect complaints against Washington, which is largely reasonable, since reforming one of the key institutions of global economic management is too grave an issue to start it by settling scores with an old trade partner.

Essentially, Brussels shares Washington’s position on the matter, as well as its grievances against that group of developing countries that has reached a rather high level of economic development, but has no wish to part with their previously gained privileges

The EU proposals also note that today’s discussions are frequently dominated by the opinion that global trade rules somehow impede trade and, therefore, developing countries need to be exempted from both current and future rules. In fact, today, the differences between developed and many developing countries are not quite as pronounced as they were 25 years ago, when the WTO was established, meaning that the above-mentioned opinion is fundamentally wrong. Obviously, some flexibility in enforcing the compliance of developing countries with the WTO rules should be preserved, but only in those cases where it is necessary. The proposals put forward by Brussels contain specific mechanisms for tackling this task.

The EU concept focuses heavily on modernizing the WTO’s Appellate Body, a crucial organ in the mechanism of resolving disputes within the WTO. The European Union’s stance on the matter was supported in November by Canada, India, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, South Korea, Iceland, Singapore, Mexico and China.

In its proposals on the Appellate Body, Brussels largely takes Washington’s grievances against its current functioning into account. In particular, the European Union proposes limiting the appeals term to 90 days, which had been stipulated earlier, yet the parties often failed to comply with the requirement.

The EU concept also contains a series of initiatives on bolstering the multilateral trade system and improving the efficiency of the WTO.

China, which has been striving to form a united front with other countries that condemn Washington’s protectionism, has also called for a reform of the WTO.

While supporting WTO reform, China has thus far limited its actions to fairly general statements, stressing that the importance and inviolability of the WTO’s basic principles and rules. It would seem that Beijing is unlikely to be unconditionally receptive of Washington’s demands that current privileges for developing countries in the WTO be abolished. In contrast, China will rather put forward the need to fight protectionism, which is a threat to free trade.

As for Russia, it wholeheartedly supports the idea of reforming the WTO. President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin recently declared this stance. Russia’s trade diplomacy has quite good positions to take an active part in the process.

In conclusion, we need to emphasize that the nascent process of reforming of the WTO cannot be simple and quick, since the list of problems is too variegated. Above, we have outlined only some of these problems. At a certain stage, the most difficult problem will likely be that of transforming the decision-making system. The consensus mechanism that has been in effect in the GATT/WTO for over 70 years clearly hampers decision-making today, as the organization boasts 164 member countries. However, abolishing this mechanism will not be easy either. This is probably the main challenge to the incipient WTO reform.

First published in our partner RIAC

Professor of World Economy and International Affairs Department at Higher School of Economics, Leading Researcher at RAS Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO)

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Economy

Ambiguity in European economic leadership

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Europe’s economic situation remains uncertain! The European economic crisis and austerity policies remain in place. On the other hand, there is no sign that the EU is passing through the current situation. Two conservative /Social Democrats in Europe have not been able to effectively counteract the economic crisis over the last few years.

 This same issue has led to anger by European citizens from traditional European parties. Subsequently, the trend of European citizens to nationalist and extremist parties has increased in recent years.

The events that have taken place in France in recent months have led to disappointment with the eurozone leaders over the current deadlock.The most important point is that Macron was planned to assume the title of the Europe’s economic leader in the short term, and that was to be after succeeding in creating and sustaining economic reforms in France and the Eurozone.

 Meanwhile, European citizens expressed their satisfaction with the election of Macron as French President in 2017. They thought that the French president, while challenging austerity policies, would strengthen the components of economic growth in the European Union. Moreover, EU leaders also hoped that Macron’s success in pursuing economic reforms in France would be a solid step in pushing the entire Eurozone out of the economic crisis.

 In other words, in the midst of anti-Euro and extremist and far-right movements in Europe, Macron was the last hope of European authorities to “manage the economic crisis” which was raising inside the Eurozone: the hope that has soon faded away!

The main dilemma in France is quite clear!”Failing to persuade French citizens” on his economic reforms, and Macron’s miscalculations about the support of French citizens for himself, were among the important factors in shaping this process. Macron had to give concessions to protesters to prevent further tensions in France.

 After the country’s month-long demonstrations, Macron was forced to retreat from his decision on raising the fuel price. Besides, he had no way but to make promises to the French citizens on issues such as raising the minimum wages and reducing the income tax. This had but one meaning: Macron’s economic reforms came to an end. Right now, European authorities know well that Macron is incapable of regaining his initial power in France and the Eurozone by 2022 (the time for the France general elections).

 Therefore, Macron has to forget the dream of EU’s economic leadership until the last moments of his presence at the Elysees Palace. Of course, this is if the young French president isn’t forced to resign before 2022! The European authorities and the Eurozone leaders have no alternative for Macron and his economic reforms in Europe. That’s why they’re so worried about the emergence of anti-EU movements in countries such as France and Germany.

 For example, they are well aware that if Marin Le Pen can defeat Macron and come to power in France during the upcoming elections, then the whispers of the collapse of the Eurozone, and even the European Union, will be clearly heard, this time with a loud voice, all over the Europe.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economic integration: Asia and the Pacific’s best response to protectionism

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Deepening economic integration in Asia and the Pacific is a longstanding regional objective. Not an end in itself but a means of supporting the trade, investment and growth necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is a priority for all member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP). China has a valuable contribution to make so I am beginning 2019 with a visit to Beijing. One to discuss with Chinese leaders how we can strengthen our collaboration and accelerate progress.

The case for deeper integration in Asia and the Pacific is becoming increasingly apparent. Recent trade tensions highlight Asia and the Pacific’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional supply chains are being disrupted and investor confidence shaken. Export growth is expected to slow and foreign direct investment to continue its downward trend. Millions of jobs are forecast to be lost, others will be displaced. Unskilled workers, particularly women, are likely to suffer most. Increasing seamless regional connectivity – expanding the infrastructure which underpins cross border commercial exchanges and intraregional trade – must be part of our response.

We should build on the existing Asian transport infrastructure agreements UN ESCAP maintains to further reduce regulatory constraints, costs and delays. For instance, UN ESCAP members are working to improve the efficiency of railway border crossings along the Trans-Asian Railway network. There is great potential to improve electronic information exchange between railways, harmonise customs formalities and improve freight trains’ reliability. The recent international road transport agreement between the governments of China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation grants traffic rights for international road transport operations on the sections of the Asia Highway which connect their borders. We should expand it to other countries. There is also huge opportunity to develop our region’s dry ports, the terminals pivotal to the efficient shipment of sea cargo to inland destinations by road or rail. A regional strategy is in place to build a network of dry ports of major international significance. UN ESCAP is looking forward to working with China to implement it.

Sustainable energy, particularly cross-border power trade, is another key plank UN ESCAP member States’ connectivity agenda. Connecting electricity grids is not only important to meet demand, ensure energy access and security. It is also necessary to support the development of large-scale renewable energy power plants and the transition to cleaner energy across Asia and the Pacific. The fight against climate change in part depends on our ability to better link up our networks. ASEAN’s achievements in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading example of what political commitment and technical cooperation can deliver. At the regional level UN ESCAP has brought together our region’s experts to develop a regional roadmap on sustainable energy connectivity. China is currently chairing this group.

For maximum impact, transport and energy initiatives need to come in tandem with the soft infrastructure which facilitates the expansion of trade. UN ESCAP analysis ranks China among the top trade facilitation and logistics performers in our region. This expertise contributed to a major breakthrough in cross-border e-commerce development and ultimately led to a UN treaty on trade digitalisation. This has been adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic trade data and documents and signed by China in 2017. Now, UN ESCAP is working to support the accession and ratification of twenty-five more countries who recognise the opportunity to minimise documentary requirements, promote transparency and increase the security of trade operations. Full implementation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific could reduce export costs by up to 30 percent. Regional export gains could be as has high as $250 billion.

As we look to the future and work to accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, economic integration must remain a priority. A strong UN-China sustainable development partnership is essential to take this agenda forward and strengthen our resilience to international trade tensions and economic uncertainty. Working with all the countries in our region, we have a unique opportunity to place sustainability considerations at the heart of our efforts and build seamless regional connectivity. That is an opportunity, which in 2019, UN ESCAP is determined to seize.UNESCAP

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Closing the loop: Commission delivers on Circular Economy Action Plan

MD Staff

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All 54 actions under the plan launched in 2015 have now been delivered or are being implemented. This will contribute to boost Europe’s competitiveness, modernise its economy and industry to create jobs, protect the environment and generate sustainable growth.

The European Commission today published a comprehensive report on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan it adopted in December 2015. The report presents the main results of implementing the action plan and sketches out open challenges to paving the way towards a climate-neutral, competitive circular economy where pressure on natural and freshwater resources as well as ecosystems is minimised. The findings of the report will be discussed during the annual Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference taking place in Brussels on 6 and 7 March.

First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development, said: “Circular economy is key to putting our economy onto a sustainable path and delivering on the global Sustainable Development Goals. This report shows that Europe is leading the way as a trail blazer for the rest of the world. At the same time more remains to be done to ensure that we increase our prosperity within the limits of our planet and close the loop so that there is no waste of our precious resources.”

Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, said: “This report is very encouraging. It shows that Europe is on the right track in creating investment, jobs and new businesses. The future potential for sustainable growth is huge and Europe is indeed the best place for an environmentally-friendly industry to grow. This success is the result of European stakeholders and decision-makers acting together.”

Moving from a linear to a circular economy

Three years after adoption, the Circular Economy Action Plan can be considered fully completed. Its 54 actions have now been delivered or are being implemented. According to the findings of the report, implementing the Circular Economy Action Plan has accelerated the transition towards a circular economy in Europe, which in turn has helped putting the EU back on a path of job creation. In 2016, sectors relevant to the circular economy employed more than four million workers, a 6% increase compared to 2012.

Circularity has also opened up new business opportunities, given rise to new business models and developed new markets, domestically and outside the EU. In 2016, circular activities such as repair, reuse or recycling generated almost €147 billion in value added while accounting for around €17.5 billion worth of investments.

EU Strategy for Plastics

The EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy is the first EU-wide policy framework adopting a material-specific lifecycleapproach to integrate circular design, use, reuse and recycling activities into plastics value chains. The strategy sets out a clear vision with quantified objectives at EU level, so that inter alia by 2030 all plastic packaging placed on the EU market is reusable or recyclable.

To boost the market for recycled plastics, the Commission launched a voluntary pledging campaign on recycled plastics. 70 companies have already made pledges, which will increase the market for recycled plastics by at least 60% by 2025. However, there is still a gap between supply and demand for recycled plastics. To close this gap, the Commission launched the Circular Plastics Alliance of key industry stakeholders supplying and using recycled plastics.

The rules on Single-Use Plastics items and fishing gear, addressing the ten most found items on EU beaches place the EU at the forefront of the global fight against marine litter. The measures include a ban of certain single-use products made of plastic (such as straws and cutlery) when alternatives are available and of oxo-degradable plastic, and propose actions for others such as consumption reduction targets, product design requirements and Extended Producers Responsibility schemes.

Innovation and Investments

To accelerate the transition to a circular economy, it is essential to investin innovation and to provide support for adapting Europe’s industrial base. Over the period 2016-2020, the Commission has stepped up efforts in both directions totalling more than €10 billion in public funding to the transition.

To stimulate further investments, the Circular Economy Finance Support Platform has produced recommendations to improve the bankability of circular economy projects, coordinate funding activities and share good practices. The platform will work with the European Investment Bank on providing financial assistance and exploiting synergies with the action plan on financing sustainable growth.

Turning Waste into Resources

Sound and efficient waste management systems are an essential building block of a circular economy. To modernise waste management systems in the Union a revised waste legislative frameworkentered into force in July 2018. This includes, among others, new ambitious recycling rates, clarified legal status of recycled materials, strengthened waste prevention and waste management measures, including for marine litter, food waste, and products containing critical raw materials.

Circular Design and Production Processes

Smart design at the beginning of a product’s lifecycle is essential for ensuring circularity. With the implementation of the Ecodesign Working Plan 2016-2019, the Commission has further promoted the circular design of products, together with energy efficiency objectives. Ecodesign and Energy Labelling measures for several products now include rules on material efficiency requirements such as availability of spare parts, ease of repair, and facilitating end-of-life treatment. The Commission has also analysed, in a dedicated Staff Working Document, its policies for products, with the intention to support circular, sustainable products.

Empowering Consumers

The transition towards a more circular economy requires an active engagement of citizens in changing consumption patterns. The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF) methods developed by the Commission can enable companies to make environmental claims that are trustworthy and comparable and consumers to make informed choices.

Strong Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder engagement is vital for the transition. The systemic approach of the action plan has given public authorities, economic and social players and civil society a framework to replicate in order to foster partnerships across sectors and along value chains. The role of the Commission in speeding up the transition and leading international efforts for circularity was also recognised at the World Economic Forum 2019 where the Commission received the Circulars Award in the Public Sector Category.

Open Challenges

The circular economy is now an irreversible, global trend. Yet, much is still needed to scale up action at EU level and globally, fully close the loop and secure the competitive advantage it brings to EU businesses. Increased efforts will be needed to implement the revised waste legislation and develop markets for secondary raw materials. Also, the work started at EU level on some issues (like chemicals, the non-toxic environment, eco-labelling and eco-innovation, critical raw materials and fertilisers) needs to be accelerated if Europe wants to reap the full benefit of a transition to a circular economy.

Interaction with stakeholders suggests that some areas not yet covered by the action plan could be investigated to complete the circular agenda. Building on the example of the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, many other sectors with high environmental impact and potential for circularity such as IT, electronics, mobility, the built environment, mining, furniture, food and drinks or textiles could benefit from a similar holistic approach to become more circular.

Background

In 2015, the Commission adopted an ambitious new Circular Economy Action Plan to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy, which would boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs. It was foreseen that the proposed actions would contribute to “closing the loop” of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, and bring benefits for both the environment and the economy. The plans would help extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, fostering energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and would be supported financially by ESIF funding, Horizon 2020, the EU structural funds and investments in the circular economy at national level.

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