In 2021, the United Kingdom (UK) exited the EU’s legal regime to become an independent entity for trade purposes – given this, the year witnessed the operation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which governs the relationship between the UK and the European Union (EU), the negotiation of at least two other free trade agreements (FTAs) ( the UK-Australia FTA and the UK-New Zealand FTA), an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) along with the establishment of the Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) and the issuance of its first decisions.  The present note summarises these key developments (and more) in UK trade over the past year.

Continue Reading UK Trade: A Summary of Developments in 2021

2021 was an eventful year for international trade law and policy in the EU, with developments in several key areas.

The EU strengthens its trade policy toolbox

In the light of the recent ongoing problems with multilateralism and the continuing rise of China, the EU focused hard on strengthening its trade enforcement toolbox in a wide variety of trade related areas. This includes the use of recent tools and proposals for new instruments:

  • The Amended Trade Enforcement Regulation entered into force on 13 February 2021. This greatly expands the EU’s capacity to adopt trade countermeasures against third countries. It can now do so even before dispute settlement proceedings at the WTO or under other international agreements have been concluded if these are blocked by the other party. This would include, for instance, situations where a trading partner appeals an adverse panel report “into the void” to the non-functioning Appellate Body at the WTO, as well as in relation to a broader range of violations. The Commission is due to undertake a review of the Trade Enforcement Regulation, to consider additional commercial policy measures in the field of trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, by 13 February 2022.
  • The FDI Screening Regulation, which has been in force since the end of 2020, has led to a growing number of FDI mechanisms notified or updated by Member States to the European Commission throughout 2021 (see here). For the EU, which did not have a role in FDI screening prior to this, this mechanism is starting to become a game-changer. In November 2021, the Commission published its first annual report on the screening of foreign direct investments into the EU. Of the 265 cases notified to the Commission between 11 October 2020 and 30 June 2021, 80% were closed by the Commission in Phase 1, whereas 14% of cases proceeded to Phase 2, with additional information being requested from the notifying Member State (the remaining 6% were still under assessment on 30 June 2021). The Commission issued an opinion, with recommended measures, in less than 3% of the notified cases. Actual prohibitions of investments by Member States appear to be limited for the moment, although there have been such instances (like Italy’s prohibition of the proposed acquisition of control in LPE, an Italian semiconductor equipment company, by a Chinese company). Moreover, parties sometimes abandon envisaged transactions prior to a formal prohibition. The imposition of conditions appears more common.
  • On 5 May 2021, the Commission published its proposal for a new Regulation to address distortions by foreign subsidies. The Regulation introduces three new instruments that would give the Commission the power to investigate foreign subsidies granted to companies active in the EU and identify whether they are causing distortions in the EU single market. Should the Commission identify distortive foreign subsidies, it could impose redressive measures to counteract their effects (see our blog post describing the Commission’s proposal here). If adopted, which currently appears likely, it would give the Commission far-reaching new powers. The Committee on International Trade, the leading committee in charge of the file within the European Parliament, has released its draft report on the proposal on 17 December 2021, generally supporting the new instruments and suggesting additional protections against home-market monopoly advantages and known future subsidies.
  • On 8 December 2021, the Commission published a proposal for a new anti-coercion instrument. The aim of this instrument would be to deter and, if necessary, retaliate against third countries exerting economic coercion against the EU or its Member States in order to influence their political decisions and policy choices (see our blog post describing the Commission’s proposal here). This is another example of a novel instrument in the field of trade that would grant the Commission with robust powers to address trade policy issues.
  • Negotiations on a proposed new International Procurement Instrument have also progressed in 2021. This instrument would enable the EU to limit, on a case-by-case basis, access to its public procurement market by companies from third countries which restrict access to their own procurement markets by EU businesses. This would represent a significant overhaul of the EU’s current public procurement system, which is currently one of the more open ones globally.


Continue Reading EU Trade: 2021 Takeaways, 2022 and Beyond – What to Expect

On 2 October 2020, India and South Africa submitted to the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS”) of the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) a proposed waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of intellectual property (“IP”) rights under the WTO TRIPS Agreement (“COVID Waiver”) insofar as these rights relate to the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19.  In essence, the COVID Waiver would allow WTO Members to forgo some protections of IP rights set out in the TRIPS Agreement in the hope that this waiver could speed up the production of affordable medical products including COVID diagnostic kits, vaccines, medicines, personal protective equipment and ventilators.

The proposed COVID Waiver has divided the WTO Membership.  While a majority of WTO Members have expressed support for the COVID Waiver, some developed countries (such as the EU, Korea, Japan, Australia and Singapore) have expressed reservations as to whether the COVID Waiver is necessary and whether it would actually help achieve the aim that it is intended to serve.

Continue Reading Tensions Between Consensus and Voting in WTO Decision-Making – Part II: The Proposed Waiver on TRIPS and COVID-19

There exists a deep-seated practice and tradition of resorting to consensus as the favoured means of decision-making at the World Trade Organization (WTO).  This practice was carried over from the time of its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  This marked preference for decision-making by consensus over voting has been enshrined in Article IX:1 of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO (Marrakesh Agreement) which provides that: “[t]he WTO shall continue the practice of decision-making by consensus followed under GATT 1947”.

However, Article IX:1 of the Marrakesh Agreement also states that: “[e]xcept as otherwise provided, where a decision cannot be arrived at by consensus, the matter at issue shall be decided by voting”.

Thus, while the Marrakesh Agreement formally recognizes consensus as the preferred means of decision-making, it also clearly recognizes the validity of taking decisions by voting as a subsidiary means when consensus is unattainable on any given matter.

As an added twist to decision-making at the WTO, Article IX:1 of the Marrakesh Agreement also establishes that: “[d]ecisions of the Ministerial Conference and the General Council shall be taken by a majority of the votes cast”.  In other words, majority voting was intended to be the default means of decision-making for the Ministerial Conference (MC) and the General Council (GC).

Nevertheless, in practice, voting at the WTO never takes place.  Instead, WTO Members have strictly adhered to consensus since the WTO’s inception.

In this three-part series, we intend to explore how the WTO Membership’s traditional aversion to voting as a means of decision-making is coming under fire and putting a strain on the proper functioning of the WTO.

Each part will in turn discuss the following three instances where significant pressure is currently building up on consensus as the exclusive means of decision-making at the WTO: (i) the appointment of Appellate Body (AB) members; (ii) the proposed decision to waive certain provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) with regard to combatting COVID-19; and (iii) the outcomes of negotiations on e-commerce, investment facilitation, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) and the domestic regulation of services conducted as “joint statement initiatives” (JSIs).

This first instalment of our three-part series will focus on the appointment of AB members.

Continue Reading Tensions Between Consensus and Voting in WTO Decision-Making – Part I: Appointing Appellate Body Members

The European Commission’s recently released proposal for a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) forms a critical part of the European Union’s Fit for 55 Package, discussed in a previous blog.  The proposed EU CBAM will require importers of certain products into the EU to pay for the tons of carbon emissions embedded in those products in the form of CBAM certificates, the price of which would be tied to the price of emissions allowances under the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).  The CBAM is expected to be phased in gradually from 2023 in the form of detailed emissions reporting requirements, transitioning to full implementation by 2026.  Although the EU CBAM has yet to be approved and details of the mechanism remain to be fleshed out via implementing acts, companies would benefit by evaluating their potential exposure now, not just to the EU CBAM but also to the measures that may be implemented in response by other countries, including the United States.

Continue Reading The EU CBAM: What the Proposed Regulation Covers, What Happens Next, and What Companies Should be Thinking About Now

Recent events at the World Trade Organization (WTO) illustrate how decision-making activities of its Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) can easily be derailed, notably by political frictions spilling over into its meetings.  However, the rarity of instances in which the DSB found itself paralysed underlines the extent to which the WTO has developed coping mechanisms which should enable it to keep such frictions at bay and thus minimize disruptions to its continued functioning.

The penultimate DSB meeting, scheduled for March 26, 2021 was suspended due to the lack of consensus required for the adoption of its agenda.  Rules applicable to DSB meetings require that its proposed agenda be adopted by consensus before a meeting can take place.  The proposed agenda circulated ahead of the March 26, 2021 DSB meeting included a request by Venezuela for the establishment of a dispute settlement panel in respect of U.S. measures.

The United States objected to the inclusion of what it perceived to be an illegitimate panel request, on the grounds that representatives of the Nicolás Maduro regime do not speak on behalf of the Venezuelan people, and that this was a misuse of the WTO aimed at challenging U.S. sanctions that sought to restore human rights and democracy to Venezuela.  As a result of the U.S. objection, the agenda could not be adopted and the DSB meeting could not take place.  All remaining items for consideration at that DSB meeting could not move forward as long as that DSB meeting remained suspended.  These included a request for the establishment of a dispute settlement panel by Australia regarding measures adopted by China in relation to barley from Australia.

Continue Reading A Bumpy Road Ahead? How International Standoffs Periodically Hold the WTO Dispute Settlement System Hostage

On April 22, 2021, President Biden will host a virtual summit with 40 world leaders to discuss the global climate change crisis. The “Leaders Summit on Climate” is intended to catalyze more ambitious emissions-reduction efforts by the world’s major economies. The United States intends to lead by example with a new 2030 emissions target as its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

The decision to convene a summit on climate change is one of many signals sent by the Biden Administration over the past few months that the U.S. approach to climate change is shifting dramatically, both at home and abroad. The Biden Administration has made clear that climate change must be part of decision-making across the entire government, including with respect to trade policy. Stronger enforcement of the environmental standards in U.S. FTAs, the integration of climate change into government procurement decisions, and strengthening U.S. supply chains for electric vehicles are all part of this shift. The United States is also pushing climate cooperation bilaterally. It recently entered into a “Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership” with Japan that focuses on the development and deployment of clean-energy technologies. The United States and China also recently released a Joint Statement “Addressing the Climate Crisis” that acknowledges their shared commitment to implementing the Paris Agreement.

One of the trade-related climate policies currently under consideration by the United States is “carbon border adjustments”. President Biden included carbon adjustments in his campaign plan and USTR referenced the possibility of imposing “carbon border adjustments” in its recently announced 2021 Trade Policy Agenda. Carbon border adjustments charge a fee on imported goods based on the carbon intensity of their production process in order to reduce the incentive to relocate carbon-intensive production to jurisdictions that have not yet addressed the need for carbon emitters to internalize emission costs, commonly referred to as “carbon leakage”.  They also serve to level the playing field for domestic industries that would otherwise face competition from cheaper, more carbon-intensive imports. By raising costs on imports, carbon adjustments may also incentivize other countries to adopt similar carbon pricing policies. Carbon adjustments may also rebate the cost of a domestic carbon fee on exports to help them compete in international markets.

Continue Reading Trade and Climate in the Lead Up to President Biden’s Climate Summit

On January 25, 2021, the EU-Korea Panel of Experts found that Korea had failed to uphold its labor obligations to “respect, promote, and realise” the right to freedom of association and to take concrete steps to ratify all eight fundamental conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO). In the final report, the Panel recommended Korea to bring its domestic laws “into conformity with the principles concerning freedom of association” but recognized that Korea had “ma[de] continued and sustained efforts towards ratification of the core ILO Conventions.”[1]

This case marked the EU’s first victory in enforcing labor obligations under the trade and sustainable development (TSD) chapter of the EU’s “new generation” of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).[2]  The EU adopts the TSD provisions as tools to improve and reinforce the labor and environmental standards of its trading partners – a key policy objective the EU has recently adopted.[3]  Within the last two years, the EU has increased enforcement of TSD obligations in its trade agreements, requesting 3 other TSD consultations,[4] and successfully securing a win against Ukraine for the violation of the TSD environmental obligations under the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.[5]

Although labor and environmental provisions are not unique to the EU’s “new generation” FTAs, EU-style TSD provisions impose additional and higher obligations, beyond those commonly provided for in the labor and environmental provisions of other model FTAs.  The following example compares the labor provisions of the EU-Korea FTA and the Korea-US (KORUS) FTA to demonstrate the differences in labor standards between these two agreements.

Continue Reading The EU-Korea FTA Labor Dispute: Comparing Labor Provisions Under the EU-Korea FTA and the KORUS FTA

On February 18, 2021, the European Commission (the Commission) published its Communication on an Open, Sustainable and Assertive Trade Policy which we previously analyzed in our blog post. Below, we look into the Communication’s Annex on Reforming the WTO: Towards a Sustainable and Effective Multilateral Trading System.

The Commission in its Trade Policy Review listed reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a clear European Union (EU) priority. The Commission notes in the Annex that “Not only is trade vital for our economy; promoting rules-based international cooperation is the very essence of the European project. The EU must therefore play a leading role in creating momentum for meaningful WTO reform.”  Achieving this goal clearly will require engagement with other WTO members. In particular, the Commission calls on the United States’ support to unblock the current Appellate Body impasse and to cooperate closely on reforming all aspects of the WTO.  The Commission will also organize consultations with China and India to better align their WTO commitments with the size of their respective economies.

Continue Reading The EU’s Approach to Reforming the WTO Towards a Sustainable and Effective Multilateral Trading System

As the Biden Administration settles into its second month in office some signals have emerged that have offered insights into the potential direction of US trade policy. Key trade officials, including United States Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have testified before the Senate as part of their confirmation processes.  The testimonies and responses of both nominees, in combination with the recently released USTR “2021 Presidential Trade Policy Agenda” report, have provided an early blueprint of the President Biden Administration’s position on current trade issues — including USMCA, potential free-trade agreements, US policy towards China, and the climate agenda – and possible new directions.

The international community has been watching these early indicators closely in order to gauge the likely track of US trade policy.   Professionals from Steptoe’s trade group who practice in major jurisdictions around the world weigh in with their take on how those jurisdictions are reacting to these early signals from the US.

Continue Reading International Responses to President Biden’s Trade Policy Positions