Recent meetings held by the House of Commons’ international trade committee garnered responses from farm organizations expressing broad support for efforts to continue reforming the World Trade Organization.
The country’s chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, told committee members in early March that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, “the multilateral trading system was facing an increasingly challenging environment, characterized by the rise of protectionism and use of unilateral trade measures. This led to difficulties in a number of areas: first, a stalemate in negotiations; second, a lack of consensus on how to treat developing countries; and third, an impasse in appointments to the WTO’s appeal mechanism.”
Each of those issues has been intensified because of the pandemic, according to Verheul, who argued it is apparent “we need a collective recommitment to the rules-based trading system and, in particular, to finding multilateral approaches to managing the global economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Canada has been leading the Ottawa Group to reform the WTO.
Beyond protectionist measures being taken in countries like India and Italy, trade agreements like the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union have fallen short of expectations, in part because of the EU employing technical or non-tariff trade barriers to restrict the flow of Canadian agriculture goods to member countries.
In a written submission to the committee, the Canadian Canola Growers Association said Canada’s mid-sized economy built on trade relies on trade standards.
“Without it, Canadian exporters would face a myriad of conflicting trade regimes increasing risk and requiring significant resources to ensure compliance,” read the submission.
The group said the WTO continues to provide the most comprehensive set of trade rules for its 164 member economies, and supports its bilateral agreements.
“While still a critical trade policy tool, Canada’s bilateral agreements build on WTO principles and rules, are limited to existing agreements, and vary by scope,” it said. “Important to canola farmers, WTO agreements cover agriculture trade, sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS), technical barriers to trade, trade remedies and dispute settlement.”
Like other agricultural groups, CCGA was encouraged by the resumption of agriculture-specific negotiations taking place in advance of a Ministerial Conference of WTO members scheduled for December.
“A decision on an agriculture program and commitment to continued negotiations at the Ministerial will be an important signal of confidence by member states,” says CCGA. “The WTO agriculture negotiation is the only multilateral forum to advance market access, domestic support, and export competition.”
The group contends more transparency and information sharing among members would increase the WTO’s effectiveness. The issue of notifications was specifically brought up. They are used to provide information when countries plan to change market access or export competition measures and domestic support spending, but critics have argued most countries aren’t properly issuing their notifications.
Verheul said improving notifications was one of the main elements of the Ottawa Group’s formation.
“Transparency and notifications — those kinds of issues were front and centre. That remains a fundamental objective, but over the course of the past year we’ve also turned much of our focus to addressing issues that are specifically related to COVID-19,” he said.
The dispute settlement mechanism continues to be a challenge for WTO reformers. Since 2019, the body has been missing the required number of members, meaning it is unable to reach quorum and hear appeals.
Andre Harp, chair of Grain Growers of Canada, said a solution is needed so that the “the WTO dispute settlement can address the growing number of complex trade issues.”