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The European Trade Ministers met in Marseille on Sunday, 13 and Monday, 14 February, under the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This informal meeting determined strategic guidelines for the EU’s trade policy action and the issue of the future of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the deepening of trade and investment relations between the EU and Africa, and transatlantic relations with a view to the next meeting of the US-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC) meeting. The Ministers also discussed the coercive measures China has taken against Lithuania.

Franck Riester, French Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade and Economic Attractiveness, said:

“In the face of trade tensions, the climate emergency and the consequences of the pandemic, our trade policy has had its aggiornamento. Under the French Presidency of the Council of the EU, the informal meeting in Marseille was essential to speed up the adjustment of the trade policy that has been underway for a few years, making it more open and sustainable and less naive.

We recalled, a few days ahead of the European Union-African Union Summit, that the prosperity and resilience of both our continents requires new actions to deepen our trade and investment relations. We also supported the momentum within the US-EU Trade and Technology Council: our strategic autonomy will require heightened coordination with our partners on the global trade issues for which we share the same ambitions.

Strengthening our sovereignty means putting ourselves in a position tomorrow to defend our interests and those of our businesses more effectively in the face of unacceptable trade sanctions like those China has taken against Lithuania.

We are also defending that ambition at multilateral level, to restore the WTO and return to a sufficiently efficient global trade order to address today’s challenges. Along with the WTO Director-General, we agreed on the importance of and need for a comprehensive commercial response to the pandemic.”

Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President of the European Commission, added:

A year ago, we launched a new EU trade strategy that is more sustainable, more assertive and designed to support our recovery from the pandemic. Today’s meeting under the French EU Presidency has allowed us to focus on these priorities.

The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc, with exports accounting for 38 million EU jobs. We need to build on this foundation to support our recovery, particularly given that 85% of global growth will take place outside the EU in the next decade. This is why we need a functioning global trading system with robust rules. To this end, we had a good discussion with WTO Director-General Okonjo-Iweala on reforming the WTO, and on other EU priorities for the upcoming WTO Ministerial: fisheries, agriculture and health. Global vaccine production should reach 23 billion doses by mid-2022 and the EU is working intensively to ensure that these doses reach everyone around the world.

It is also imperative that we reshape our strategic partnership with Africa and continue to deepen transatlantic ties in 2022. The upcoming EU-US Trade and Technology Council is a real opportunity to deepen our cooperation on emerging technologies and common challenges.

We also discussed the Commission’s push to make our trade strategy more assertive, in light of escalating geopolitical challenges. Our new tool to defend ourselves against economic coercion is a big step forward in this respect, and I welcome the fact that it is a priority for the French Presidency.

What prospects are there for the WTO’s future?

The European Union defends rules-based international trade and, as such, supports the work of the World Trade Organization. However, the WTO is currently in crisis due in large part to the deadlock of its Appellate Body, and talks at the Organization to adapt the rules of global trade to today’s challenges – such as health and fishing negotiations – remain difficult.

In the presence of WTO Director-General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the talks reaffirmed the support of the EU Member States for the principle of swift organization of a 12th WTO Ministerial Conference, once the public health situation allows, if possible by the end of June 2022. The Ministers also encouraged the European Commission to continue the efforts it has been making so far at the WTO to maintain a high level of engagement on all issues on the Ministerial Conference agenda.

On health more specifically, the Member States reaffirmed their full support to the Commission for the negotiation of an agreement on trade and health, in a comprehensive approach combining measures to facilitate access to and distribution of the most innovative medicines and vaccines for all, as well as commitments to transparency, governance of export restrictions and trade facilitation measures. The Ministers highlighted that the protection of intellectual property remained a decisive aspect of these negotiations, creating an incentive for innovation – that has enabled the swift development of vaccines – and fostering cooperation and technology transfers. However, the Ministers highlighted that intellectual property should never be an obstacle to the equitable distribution of products to fight a pandemic. In this respect, the Member States recalled their support for the proposal to clarify and facilitate the conditions in which WTO members may authorize companies, in any country, to manufacture and export COVID-19 pharmaceutical products swiftly, affordably and simply, even when innovations are protected by patents.

Furthermore, the Member States have called for WTO talks to be stepped up in order to improve the organization’s functioning and adapt its rules, so that it can overcome current challenges, especially those related to sustainable development and digital technology, and also to strengthen the fight against unfair practices that distort international trade. Ministers also highlighted the importance of reaching an ambitious and coherent agreement on regulating fisheries subsidies to contribute to the sustainability of fish stocks, in accordance with the relevant United Nations Sustainable Development Goal and European fisheries policy.

Finally, Member States held an initial discussion on the initiative launched by the WTO Director-General and the Commission to bring together a coalition of trade ministers sharing a high ambition in fighting climate change to maintain political momentum on these crucial challenges.

Overhauling the partnership between the EU and Africa

Ahead of the summit between the EU and the AU, talks between Trade Ministers on Monday morning highlighted the need to implement a strategy to intensify trade and investment between the European Union and Africa. The Member States agree on the analysis that strengthening the value chains between the two continents would improve the resilience of African and European economies, and ensure tangible progress for the ecological transition and sustainable development on both continents.

The Ministers therefore invited the Commission to mobilize all its available tools to accelerate this development, and in particular:

Preparing the next meeting of the US-EU Trade and Technology Council

The Trade Ministers also addressed the strengthening of relations with the United States ahead of preparations for the next meeting of the Trade and Technology Council, following the first session organized in Pittsburgh on 29 September2021.

The Member States highlighted the importance of the United States as an essential partner of the European Union, not only as a source of reciprocal trade opportunities, but also as a partner to respond to the challenges that must be overcome through trade policies.

The Ministers welcomed the work undertaken in the past year by the European Commission, which resulted in the lifting of most tariff sanctions putting a strain on the transatlantic trade relationship, and by establishing positive, constructive dialogue with the United States, while respecting the European Union’s decision-making autonomy.

The Member States reiterated this morning their full support to the Commission for the organization in France in the spring of a second meeting of the Trade and Technology Council. With this in mind, they also discussed priorities such as international normalization; securing supply chains, including for rare earths, permanent magnets and semiconductors; technological cooperation, including on cloud computing, 5G and 6G connectivity and artificial intelligence; the predictability and transparency of export control and investment screening regimes; the coordination of measures to combat distorting practices; and approaches to the decarbonization of trade. The Ministers highlighted the importance of US re-engagement at the WTO to address the challenges of the multilateral trading system.

The Ministers also discussed recent developments concerning the trade restrictions adopted by China against Lithuania and their effects on the functioning of the European single market. The Ministers recalled their united perspective and reaffirmed European solidarity with Lithuania and the full support to the steps taken thus far by the European Commission, particularly in the framework of the WTO, to settle this situation by prioritizing appeasement. The Ministers also mentioned the work underway at the Council on the proposal of an anti-coercion instrument, which aims to equip the European Union with a means of dissuading its partners from implementing such measures, in accordance with the rules of international law.

Finally, the meeting concluded with a working lunch with the Chair of the European Parliament’s committee on International Trade, Mr Bernd Lange, which provided the opportunity to discuss the need for an open trade policy that creates opportunities for our businesses on foreign markets, the particularly rich legislative agenda of the trade sector, and the incorporation of sustainable development into trade policy, especially in light of the ongoing review of the European Commission’s approach to sustainable development in the EU’s trade agreements. The Ministers and Bernd Lange, supported by the European Commission, also expressed their shared determination to see the trilogue discussions on the public procurement reciprocity instrument come to fruition soon.

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