WTO Members discuss trade responses to COVID-19 pandemic
At a meeting of the General Council on 15 May, WTO members exchanged views regarding trade responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many members said the unprecedented crisis was best addressed through enhanced cooperation and coordination among the international community, including at the WTO.
More than 60 member delegations intervened at the meeting to discuss immediate responses to COVID-19 as well as longer-term strategies for addressing the adverse impact of the crisis on national economic and development prospects, as well as on the global economy as a whole. The meeting was held virtually due to continued restrictions on gatherings at WTO headquarters.
David Walker, the New Zealand ambassador chairing the General Council, said in conclusion that addressing the health crisis remains the urgent priority, and that many members taking the floor noted the importance of trade in that context – namely, to keep markets open in order to facilitate the flow of essential medical goods as well as agricultural and food products.
“Going forward, and as governments consider options for immediate responses to the COVID-19 crisis, as well as long-term ones, our biggest challenge in the trade sphere is to ensure that trade policies, and the work that we do as members of the WTO, are part of the solution to assist and support that recovery.”
Multilateral cooperation “is more important than ever,” he added “As a member-driven organization, there cannot have been a more important moment in our 25 year existence, as one of you put it today, for members to ‘step up and drive’.”
Director-General Roberto Azevêdo also stressed the importance of international cooperation on trade to help lift economies out of the crisis, a message that has been delivered by the G20 as well as various WTO members and groups of members in their declarations, statements and proposals.
“Restarting the global economy and reinstating confidence for businesses and households will depend not only on when the health crisis is contained, but on coordinated, coherent and cooperative international economic policy responses,” he said.
“I call upon all members to resist policies that may further disrupt supply chains and add to the strains on an already fragile global economy. To build more resilient national economies, we must build more resilient international cooperation – and a more resilient and effective multilateral trading system.”
DG Azevêdo described the WTO’s efforts to track members’ COVID-19 related trade measures as part of the organization’s monitoring and transparency mandate. More information is available on the WTO’s dedicated COVID-19 webpage here.
In their interventions many members recognized the unique situation governments were currently facing. While recognizing the need to take measures necessary to ensure the supply of essential medicines and medical equipment, they stressed that any such measures must be temporary, targeted, proportional and transparent.
Many developing country members that took the floor underlined the importance of flexibilities in the existing WTO agreements to respond to health emergencies, including under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). They also said access to trade finance was a concern for many developing countries as well as the impact of the current crisis on their micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises.
A number of members called for re-engaging in negotiations such as fisheries subsidies and cited the importance of getting the WTO back to work in earnest. Many members supported taking a decision soon on the dates and venue for the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference, which had been scheduled to take place in June 2020 before being postponed because of the pandemic.
The next regular General Council meeting will take place on 29 May in virtual format.