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Why multilateralism matters

 

 

 

Moritz Wüstenberg

Junior Researcher, Energy Law

LIBERAL TRADE has faced growing resentment from several directions in recent years. The decision by the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union following a 2016 referendum has affected both businesses and individuals. On the other side of the Atlantic, the 2016 election of President Trump was built on a campaign of protectionism and threats to multilateral trading rules. Disrupting the international trading system in order to realise an “America first” policy or to cast of the shackles of the European Union raise concerns and questions. In addition to creating economic benefits, trade on multilateral terms has for centuries been recognized as a key tool for maintaining peaceful relations between nations. If multilateralism fails, how will this impact geopolitics? Some exceptions, such as those allowing for closer cooperation without infringing on the multilateral rights, are sanctioned by the multilateral rules of the WTO and their use is on the rise. Is an increase in the use of exceptions to multilateralism a cause for concern?

THE REDUCTION of tariffs has been achieved through several rounds of negotiations under auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in the wake of the Second World War. The outcome these means that trade in goods today is nearly tariff free. A key ingredient for the success of the GATT negotiations was the Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) clause, through which tariff concessions negotiated between some Members were multilateralized to all on a non-discriminator basis. In tandem with trade liberalization the global economy witnessed rapid growth of income, creating wealth for those taking part in the process. The driver of this growth has been argued to have been the virtuous cycle in which tariff cuts led to increased trade, which in turn led to more income which yet again enabled tariff cuts. Today, the MFN clause remains a cornerstone of the World Trade Organization Agreements (WTO) with only few exceptions to it.

PREFERENTIAL TRADE Agreements, such as the European Union, NAFTA or the CETA, that offer deeper liberalization to its Members, but do not raise tariffs or other barriers to trade vis-à-vis those WTO Members that are not part of the pact, form the most important exception to the MFN obligation. In general, the preconditions for deviations from the MFN principle are threefold: transparency (the requirement to notify), commitment to regional trade liberalization (the requirement that PTA´s cover all trade between parties) and neutrality in relation to non-parties. The number of PTA´s has grown rapidly in the past decades, leading to concerns on the erosion of multilateralism. This echoes also the broader discussion on the fragmentation of international law, ongoing for more than a century.

THE POSITIVE economic effects that can be achieved through liberal trading policies have been evident in both Great Britain in the 19th century as well as the United State in the 20th century. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 ended a period of mercantilism in place since 1815 and pushed Great Britain into prosperity by embracing free trade, even on unilateral terms. The underlying theory was and remains that gains can be made by specializing in the production of certain products and then exchanging these for products that others produced efficiently. Free trade would eventually lead to an efficient outcome as nations produced those goods which they could produce most efficiently. With its bet on free trade, Great Britain would be the leading economic power of the 19th century.

SUCCESFUL POST-WAR settlements, at least since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, have specifically recognized the relevance liberal trade has for the maintenance of peaceful relations. Are the mostly peaceful relations since the Second World War under threat from the rattling of trade sabres? While it is unlikely that neither the protectionist policies of the United States or the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU will have any imminent effect on peaceful relations between nations, the stakes are high. Throughout recent history, liberal trade has functioned as an assurance against armed conflict and, conversely protectionism has preluded conflict.

A RECENT investigation on the effect of aluminium and steel imports (Section 232 investigation) on the US economy concluded that these have a negative effect on the National Security and can therefore be “adjusted”. Against a backdrop of several options to protect the domestic industries, President Trump chose to raise duties on imports from all countries including Canada and the European Union. Calls for retaliation were immediate, reflecting the conception that the measures of the United States are unjustified.

NATIONAL SECURITY exceptions are found in most trade agreements, including the WTO agreements. The US seems to have prepared to make use of this exception by broadening the traditional interpretation of national security beyond national defence to include also economic security in the aluminium and steel investigation. The apparent reason behind this interpretation is an attempt to rely on a little used MFN exception of the GATT (Article XXI) that allows WTO Members to take `any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests`. While there are qualifications for the use of Article XXI, it is in effect self-judging it suffices that the measures taken are considered necessary by the state taking them. Invoking this article without due cause could be the straw that breaks the camel´s back, undermining the effectiveness of the multilateral framework and causing other nations to retaliate by also invoking Article XXI to justify their trade restrictive measures.

THE POLITICAL “TRILEMMA” is how the economist Dani Rodrik has described the problem facing international economic integration. Nations have to make a choice between two of three lines of policy: international economic integration, the nation-state and mass politics. Should international economic integration be maintained, either the nation-state or mass politics have to be sacrificed. With both America and the United Kingdom choosing the nation-state and mass politics over integration, only time will tell if history will repeat itself with trade protectionism flowing into geopolitical tensions.

DEEPER COMMITMENT to free trade without diminishing the rights of WTO Members is at the core of the Preferential Trade Agreement exceptions to MFN treatment. Negotiation with fewer nations enables faster decision making and makes it possible to overcome the foot-dragger effect which the consensus based rules of the WTO can have. Consequently, PTA can be seen as a building block as opposed to a stumbling block for multilateralism. Moves toward unilateralism as witnessed in the US aluminium and steel investigation, on the other hand can be considered conflicting with multilateralism. It remains to be seen if trade-politics convert to geo-politics and, more ominously, trade wars morph into real wars.

This blog is based on the author’s recent publication ´Back to the future: MFN treatment in an era of protectionism´ in the Nordic Journal of International Law. This publication reviews the development of the Most-Favoured Nation clause in light of historical events and analyses its importance in trading relations today.

 

Volatile relations: EU-Russia energy regulation

 

 

 

Moritz Wüstenberg, Junior Researcher, European Law

THE WORLD Trade Organization (WTO) is often seen as a curiosity generally associated with globalization. The WTO as we know it today has developed in its 70 year’s history from a provisionally applied interim agreement (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or “GATT”) to become an independent organization, with nearly universal participation.

FOLLOWING ACCESSION to the WTO in 2012, Russia has been eager to take its energy related grievances with the EU to be adjudicated at the WTO. Whilst transit has become a lesser problem in recent years, partly due to the direct connection from Russia to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline (Nord Stream 2 is on its way, see previous blog by K. Talus), the internal market liberalization of the EU has had effects on the European investments of Russia´s export monopoly Gazprom.

THE CASE directly related to energy regulation brought by Russia to the Dispute Settlement Body (case DS476, Certain Measures Relating to the Energy Sector) of the WTO alleges, inter alia, that Russian goods and services are treated less favourably than third countries and less favourably than other EU goods and services (in violation of the Most Favoured Nation obligation and National Treatment obligation of the EU, respectively). The alleged violations are mainly related to limitations in access to infrastructure, including pipelines that connect Nordstream 1 to the wider European gas network, owned by Gazprom.

TWO OTHER cases brought by Russia against the EU (cases DS474 and DS494) are also related to energy, albeit indirectly. In anti-dumping determinations against energy intensive goods (in this case, steel from Russia), EU rules make it possible to replace the actual energy costs producers pay in Russia by a cost that is adjusted to reflect “market” prices. In effect this means that the anti-dumping margin paid on steel imports to the EU become higher.

THE REGULATION of energy trade between the EU and Russia is vital for the EU to secure its energy supply and at the same time crucial for Russia, as some 50% of the federal budget is raised from the extraction and sale of energy goods. The disputes brought by Russia touch upon matters of trade that are sensitive due to their strategic nature, but are not regulated effectively by the rules of the WTO which were negotiated for more traditional areas of trade.

THE ENERGY Charter Treaty, which Russia abandoned in 2009, has detailed rules for energy trade and would be more effective in regulating this area of trade. Russia withdrew from provisional application of the Energy Charter Treaty following the gas crisis of 2006 and 2009. The gas crisis were caused by transit disputes and resulted in many eastern and central European countries being undersupplied during the winter. Central stated reasons for the final withdrawal from the ECT were related to failures in the regulation of transit. Whether Russia will join the ECT seems uncertain, even though efforts to develop the regulation of transit continue at the Energy Charter.

THE SHORTCOMINGS of the regulatory framework of the WTO for energy trade have been discussed at the WTO as well as in academia. It is generally understood that there are a number of areas, export prohibitions through cartels (e.g. OPEC) and transit rules being prominent examples, which the rules of the WTO do not address effectively. Numerous suggestions for amendment or addition of rules have been made, but the debate remains open.

A NEIGHBOURHOOD trading relationship, such as the one between the EU and Russia, can be regulated by a number of WTO rule compliant means. One option would be the conclusion of a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) to regulate energy trade between the EU and Russia. This would be a fairly straightforward option which, as long as it complied with WTO requirements (mainly the obligation not to raise tariffs or other barriers to trade in relation to other WTO members), could be negotiated bilaterally and would effectively remain outside the multilateral framework of the WTO.

PLURILATERAL AGREEMENTS (PA´s), binding to those members that accede to them, have previously been adopted within the framework of the WTO (Annex 4 agreements). The main difference in relation to PTA´s is that PA´s function within the framework of the WTO. There are a number of advantages to regulating through a PA as opposed to a PTA, one being direct access to the dispute settlement system of the WTO. The main difficulty in adopting a PA on energy would be the need to achieve consensus among the WTO membership to add such an agreement to Annex 4. In effect this means that consensus has to be obtained also from members who do not intend to join a PA and consequently do not have rights or obligations arising from it.

RE-REGULATING ENERGY trade between the EU and Russia may become necessary rather sooner or later. Even if a transition to renewable energies is on its way, natural gas will remain an important transition fuel until 2040 and later, even under the most ambitious climate targets. Russia has the world´s largest natural gas reserves and is connected by pipeline to the EU. Maintaining a well-regulated commercial relationship would therefore not only ensure energy security, but would also be advantageous to achieve climate policy targets.

 

Full articles on the above issues have been published recently as:

Moritz Wüstenberg, ´An Overview of the Dichotomy between EU Energy Market Liberalisation and the Multilateral Trading System: Case Review of WTO Case DS476 – Certain Measures Relating to the Energy Sector, International Trade Law & Regulation 22 (1) 2016

Moritz Wüstenberg, ´Reformation or Standstill? Re-Regulating Energy Trade between the EU and Russia, International Energy Law Review 34 (7) 2016