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WTO: LDCs plea on medical, food exports, UK in ‘friends of system’ export pledge

There is continued movement around the issue of restrictions on exports of medical products in the World Trade Organization.

LDCs call on WTO members not to restrict medical, food exports

Benin, on behalf of the group of Least Developed Countries in the World Trade Organization, requested that other members of the international institution exempt the poorest countries in the world from restrictions enacted in at least 82 countries on exports of personal protective gear, medical equipment and pharmaceutical products.

The LDC groups also calls on other WTO members not to enact export restrictions on food.

“Least developed countries depend heavily on imports to secure access and availability of (…) medical supplies, as most of them don’t have the capacity to manufacture them directly,” writes Benin.

“Between 2017 and 2018, LDCs imports of (…) medical supplies amounted to nearly USD 7.3 billion with disinfectant and medical consumable accounting for the majority of imported items.”

Export restrictions are not totally prohibited under the WTO rule-book but must be proportionate, time-restricted and tied to proven domestic shortages. They must also be notified to the organisation.

The LDC group wants that no restrictions apply to their imports altogether.

“While noting the rights and obligations of Members, given the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reliance of LDCs on imports of essential medical goods and basic food products, and in view of the proliferation of trade restrictive measures, the LDC Group is hereby requesting non-LDC Members … not to impose export prohibitions or restrictions.”

Priority imports for LDCs include basics such as soap, thermometers, hand sanitizers, paper bedsheets, but also respirators, scanners and other hospital equipment.

UK joins ‘friends of system’ declaration on export restrictions

The communication was circulated the same day as a group of 43 WTO members – a loose coalition called ‘friends of the multilateral system’ – pledged generally not to enact export restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis.

“As Ministers responsible for the WTO, we are actively working to ensure the continued flow of vital medical supplies and other essential goods and services across borders during this health crisis,” reads the statement.

The signatories promise to keep any export restriction on medical supply chains “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary” and not to enact food export restrictions.

The EU is not signatory of the declaration because not formally part of the coalition of mid-sized or small WTO members.

But the United Kingdom has signed the communication which was formally tabled by Switzerland on behalf of the group.

Britain is in a status quo transition period with the EU on its way out of the bloc until the end of 2020. But London started an independent trade diplomacy at the WTO.

The EU signed a communication to the WTO pledging not to enact export restrictions on agricultural goods.

EU PPE export restrictions – first notifications released – UK most liberal

One of the other reasons the EU is not on board the friends of the system might also well be its on export restrictions on personal protective equipment – which are formally in place until the end of May.

In the face of unilateral member state actions to restrict trade – including within the EU – on medical products the Commission has tried to enforce discipline by trying to ensure export restrictions do not apply within member states and by narrowing down the scope and timeframe of the export restrictions.

One of the ways of keeping member states disciplines is also by obliging them to notify their export authorisation decisions to the European Commission, which the executive body then publishes.

Today the European Commission published a first list of export decisions notified by member states. The document shows that the largest EU member states France and Germany have not notified any decision between 27 April and 3 May. Nor did Spain, Italy, which has been a first victim of French government confiscations of medical protective gear, notified eighteen authorisations.

Portugal notified a series of rejections. Sweden notified one rejection – of exports of 10000 units of mouth -nose -protection equipment to the United States.

The UK, which is still bound by its obligations towards the EU, has been liberal in its export authorisations and notified around 90 authorisations. Destinations included mainly the US and large emerging markets. Not one LDC, however.

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