(Source: European Commission)
The EU welcomes the successful results in key areas of the 12th Ministerial Conference of the WTO concluded today, against a backdrop of heightened global trade tensions and a food security crisis caused by Russian’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Trade Ministers of the 164-member organisation met for the first time after almost five years, the Conference having been postponed twice due to the restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members agreed on a significant multilateral Agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies. Also, on specific next steps toward WTO reform, including restoring a fully functioning dispute settlement function for the organisation. A Declaration on pandemic response and future preparedness was also agreed, together with a waiver of certain intellectual property obligations concerning COVID-19 vaccines. In a joint response to the current dramatic food situation resulting from Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, WTO members agreed to exercise restraint on export restrictions and to exempt the World Food Programme humanitarian purchases from such restrictions. Finally, an agreement was reached to extend the moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce until the next WTO Ministerial.
Under EU’s initiative, some members reiterated their solidarity with Ukraine. The EU also forged further cooperation on addressing climate change.
European Commission Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, said: “Despite unprecedented challenges, this WTO Ministerial succeeded in clinching important outcomes of global significance. We showed that we can respond to urgent issues such as the emerging food security crisis and the pandemic. A historic agreement on prohibiting harmful fisheries subsidies to underpin sustainability was achieved. We maintained the moratorium on import duties for e-commerce, which was vital for SMEs and the digital transition. The EU also spearheaded a major solidarity event for Ukraine. Over the past 5 days, we worked hard to overcome profound divergences. However, we also agreed a deep reform of the organisation is urgently needed, across all its core functions. Ultimately, this is about restoring trust and the political buy-in of all members, and upholding the rules-based multilateral trade system with a reformed WTO at its core. We will work on this without delay.”
European Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, said:”The adoption of the food security declaration and the decision in support of the World Food Programme demonstrate that the WTO can deliver a timely response to the current challenges. This multilateral declaration carries a strong message to the world. Indeed, addressing the food security concerns has been a key priority for the EU for MC12. Although it was not possible at this ministerial to agree further reform of agriculture, the EU remains fully committed to continue the work on the agricultural reform post MC12. There is a need to focus in particular on trade distorting policies where WTO has a crucial role to play.”
Members agreed to convene the next Ministerial Conference (MC13) no earlier than December 2023 and no later than March 2024. Concrete outcomes of the MC12 include:
A meaningful multilateral agreement contributing to the protection of the oceans was achieved. The agreement on harmful fisheries subsidies is in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 (UN SDG). It includes a strong prohibition of subsidies contributing to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing with unprecedented transparency provisions. Secondly, it includes an absolute prohibition of subsidies for fishing on the unregulated high seas. This is a landmark prohibition for the most vulnerable areas lacking an established and coordinated fisheries management regime. And thirdly, the provision on overfished stocks will bring sustainability rules for subsidies regarding most vulnerable stocks in the first phase of the agreement. For this agreement regarding subsidies on overcapacity and overfishing to enter into force, negotiations on UN SDG 14.6 need to be concluded. The EU is fully committed to complete the agreement with the elements not yet agreed as soon as possible. A dedicated trust fund to provide technical assistance and capacity building for developing countries to implement the agreement was also announced.
Ministers committed to undertake a major reform of the WTO looking into all aspects of its activities. This should reinforce its capacity to be a credible forum for negotiations and to monitor global trade policy developments. Critically, there is a commitment to restore a fully-functioning dispute settlement system no later than 2024. Reforming the WTO is an essential priority for the EU since it is key to ensure stability and to promote a rules-based approach to international trade. This is why the EU has played the leading role on WTO reform and intends to continue to do so as discussions advance in Geneva.
Response to the COVID-19 pandemic
Ministers agreed on a Declaration on the WTO response to the pandemic and preparedness for future pandemics which affirms their commitment to transparency, timely and comprehensive information sharing, and restraint on imposing export restrictions. Responding to the exceptional circumstances of the COVID pandemic and to address the requests from developing countries, Ministers agreed on a waiver of certain procedural obligations under the TRIPS Agreement which allow for the swift manufacture and export of COVID-19 vaccines without the consent of the patent owner. At the same time, the agreement maintains a functioning intellectual property framework with incentives for investment, research and transfer of technology. This environment is indispensable for the development of new vaccines and medicines and should contribute to the strengthening of the production capacity of African countries.
Food Security and Agriculture
In a joint Declaration on Food Security, WTO members committed to avoiding unjustified export restrictions on food and improving transparency on any export restrictions that do occur. Moreover, a Decision was taken to completely exempt humanitarian purchases for the World Food Programme from export restrictions.
Agreement on this package shows that the WTO is ready to react to the exceptional circumstances that many members face in light of the reduced supply to world markets resulting from Russia’s war against Ukraine and its blockage of Ukraine’s grain exports.
The EU regrets that members were not able to overcome their differences on a work programme for agriculture. The EU remains committed to reaching a realistic, focused and balanced outcome in the run up to MC13.
The moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions (the ‘e-commerce moratorium’) was extended, a critical win for the digital economy. WTO members agreed to maintain the current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions until MC13. The members also agreed to reinvigorate their work under the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce, including challenges and opportunities affecting the developing countries and LDCs.
Solidarity with Ukraine
In a joint statement issued at an EU-organised meeting ahead of the opening of the Ministerial, WTO members expressed their grave concerns about the devastating impact of the war on Ukraine’s ability to export and import, as well as the broader consequences of the war on global trade and food security. Ministers also expressed their willingness to facilitate market access, including transit, for Ukrainian exports. The EU is leading by example, having recently announced duty- and quota-free access to the EU market for all Ukrainian exports as well as “Solidarity Lanes” to help get Ukrainian goods to international markets.
Cooperation on Trade and Climate
The EU, Ecuador, Kenya and New Zealand agreed to work jointly to forge an inclusive Coalition of Trade Ministers on Climate, launching a dialogue with trade ministers from a diverse group of countries on enhancing international cooperation on the trade and climate nexus and its contribution to sustainable development and environmental sustainability. This reflects their shared commitment to bringing the fight against climate change to the forefront of trade policy.