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Today's annual gathering, typically hosted by Switzerland in Davos on the margins of the World Economic Forum, was held in virtual format this year.

Emphasizing that “cooperation on trade can accelerate access to vaccines”, DDG Wolff called for forceful and immediate action on trade and health, starting with deliberation on existing proposals. Ministers from Canada, the European Union and others speaking today highlighted a paper from the Ottawa Group,(1) urging WTO members to sign on to a “Trade and Health Initiative” to minimize supply chain disruptions to essential goods during pandemics.   Ministers from India and South Africa and others at the meeting asked for favorable consideration of a proposal that members waive intellectual property protections on COVID-19-related medical technologies.

At the end of the meeting, the chair, Guy Parmelin, President of the Swiss Confederation and Head of the Federal Department for Economic Affairs, Education and Research, issued a summary of the discussions on his own authority. It can be found here.

DDG Wolff's full remarks are below:

My thanks to our Swiss hosts and to President Parmelin both for his remarks today and for his very thoughtful address on the occasion of the 25th anniversary celebration of the WTO last November.

Ministers, you can make 2021 a year of substantial accomplishments at the WTO.

There has already been a beginning.  In the first action of the year, Members accounting for most of the world’s agricultural exports committed to refrain from imposing export restrictions on purchases made by the World Food Program.

The anticipated appointment of a new Director-General will bring needed leadership in moving toward concrete results.  But she can succeed only with your active engagement.

I urge you not to wait for the Twelfth Ministerial Conference, delayed by the pandemic, to move negotiations forward to positive outcomes. 

There is no reason why the twenty-year negotiation on fisheries subsidies cannot be concluded successfully — without a sacrifice of ambition — in the next few months.  Success hinges on Members' willingness to accept a significant level of discipline on their own subsidies.  Political decisions and your active engagement will be required to bring about success.

I urge you to address “Trade and health” forcefully and immediately.  Last year, trade made a vitally important contribution in supplying needed medical supplies to deal with COVID-19.  Proposals as to what more can be done must be deliberated now.  Cooperation on trade can accelerate access to vaccines.  There can be no higher priority.

Consider how the WTO can further contribute to the economic recovery.  Members can take steps to ensure enhanced transparency, work to eliminate unnecessary barriers and agree that new restrictions will not be imposed.  Trade finance must be restored.  The WTO convened the major international financial organizations and banks to address this need in the aftermath of the financial crisis and it can do so now again.

“Trade and climate” must be on the WTO agenda.  Carbon border adjustment measures will likely result in conflicts unless Members engage in joint efforts to find mutually beneficial solutions.  The heightened interest of Members in a broad range of other environmental issues such as plastics pollution and the circular economy can be reflected in new agreements.   The WTO can be more visible as a steward of the planet by reviving and concluding the Environmental Goods Agreement

The Joint Statement Initiatives on e-commerce, investment facilitation, and services domestic regulation can bear fruit this year, building on what was achieved with respect to small businesses last year.  In addition, more progress can be made on the economic empowerment of women through international trade.  

Concerns over income inequality have been growing.  The WTO's rules-based system needs to be seen not only among countries but also within countries, as responsive to the needs of workers, farmers and all who wish to engage in international trade.  But international trade rules cannot substitute for domestic policy actions to make growth more inclusive.  When large numbers of people are unhappy with how the economy is working for them, trade will often receive undeserved blame.  The WTO is about fairness.  Its work will never be done in pursuit of that objective, but further progress can be made this year.

There can be an outcome on agriculture — at least a down-payment and a defined work program going forward.

During 2021, the WTO can likely welcome new WTO Members, as it continues to move towards universal coverage.  Comoros and Bosnia-Herzegovina may be ready, and over a dozen others are making progress.

Last but not least, “WTO reform” can become a reality, with actions taken to —

  • facilitate rule-making with wide participation,
  • achieve heightened enforcement through binding dispute settlement in a manner agreed by all, and
  • provide a strong mandate for a Secretariat to deliver all needed support to Members and to achieving the mission of the WTO. 

We should greet this year with optimism and re-dedication.  With your strong engagement, 2021 can be a year to remember for what is achieved.

Thank you.

 

Notes

  1. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland back to text

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