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In his remarks to the gathering, DDG Wolff pointed to evidence that trade was playing a useful role in easing the shortages of key medical supplies seen earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary figures from WTO economists 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 2020 compared to the year before. This expansion contrasts with a roughly 18% drop in overall merchandise trade — a decline that DDG Wolff noted would have been even worse if not for governments’ fiscal and monetary measures to counter falling demand.

Despite these relatively positive developments, DDG Wolff warned the G20 ministers that “the pandemic is far from over and economic challenges will persist”. The ongoing rollback of COVID-related trade restrictions may be losing momentum, he said. Looking ahead, members should avoid situations where “government support needed to fight the economic downturn could end up distorting competitive conditions and fueling future trade tensions”.

Emphasizing the importance of open and predictable trade to a strong economic recovery from the pandemic, DDG Wolff said that WTO members have an opportunity to work with the next Director-General to ensure that the global trading system remains fit for purpose and is “seen to deliver fairness to all who participate in or are affected by global commerce”.  

“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,” he said.

DDG Wolff suggested that emergency trade restrictions should be reviewed through the lens of the criteria the G20 articulated in March — namely, that such measures should be targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary. Such a review would lay the groundwork for unwinding measures which are no longer absolutely necessary. 

He also called for WTO members to conclude ongoing talks in areas such as digital trade and fisheries subsidies.

The text of DDG Wolff’s remarks at the G20 trade ministers’ meeting is available here.

The final communiqué from the meeting is available here.

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