WTO Diary: Day three – Panels, planning and post-mortem

Thursday marked a first at the WTO for techUK- our first ever panel at the Public Forum. As the only UK business organisation with an event, it was a significant step in our international engagement.

But before we get to that, Day 3 also saw a lot more meetings for techUK and our delegation to discuss digital trade and the UK’s role at the WTO post Brexit.

One key highlight was our meeting with WTO Deputy Director General, Yi Xiaozhun. As the man who negotiated China’s accession to the WTO he is someone who fully understands how important the value in participation at WTO level. He and his team offered valuable insight into the challenges surrounding the WTO’s discussion on ecommerce, in particular in identifying the data detailing the rise of digital (something even domestically is difficult to achieve). He was also very clear about the value of having the UK active participation in the ecommerce discussions post Brexit, showing the respect in which the UK as a thoughtful trading partner is held.

Another important meeting was with the USA’s Ambassador to the WTO, Dennis Shea. This was an excellent opportunity for the techUK delegation, alongside our sister trade body, ITI from the USA, to talk about the high ambitions our countries have for the ecommerce discussions. Suffice to say there was strong support for the 10 objectives for the Joint Statement Initiative. It was also a valuable chance to discuss the USA’s agenda for WTO reform. While the decision of the US Administration to hold up new appointments to the WTO’s Appellant Body, risking its ability to function, is not something techUK supports, it was useful to understand their concerns about the slow progress on WTO reform. This issue was the elephant in the room throughout the Public Forum and certainly something that the UK, and UK businesses, needs to properly understand. There is a real risk that the UK could be seeking to do numerous trade (FTAs) deals post Brexit at a time when the traditionally underpinning for FTAs of WTO commitments is breaking down.

On to techUK’s panel, which brought together a range of experts, expertly chaired by former Chair of the WT’s General Council, Stuart Harbinson, to discuss the rise of intangibles and their impact on global value chains. A complex topic, but a hugely important one as the cost of manufacturing products is replaced by costs of Intellectual Property (IP) and the point of sale market. As explained by UK Ambassador, Andy Staines, this is creating the so-called ‘smile curve’ in the value chains within global production. 

3D printing represents perhaps the greatest potential for even more rapid change in this area, so it was great to have Carlos Halasz of HP to talk about their work in this field. One critical point he made was the benefits of 3D printing for being able to have local adaptations to products, allowing far more flexibility for diversity and for goods to cater to local markets.

Karishma Banga, of the Overseas Development Initiative talked about this risks that these changes might create for Africa, where a decline in manufacturing has the potential to seriously damage local economies. However, she was clear that to avoid this risk developing countries have to prepare for the change rather that pretend it isn’t happening. Seizing the opportunities of developments such as 3D printing, in particularly for female employment, will require countries to focus on the basics, such as securing stable electricity supplies.  There is clearly a big role in trade discussions on these topics to ensure that every country can seize the opportunity to develop their own innovations and to grow, and this point was reflected by Antony Walker, techUK’s Deputy CEO in his comments to the event on the importance of putting ethics at the heard of discussions of the digital revolution.

So, as the WTO’s Ecommerce week drew to a close, what are the key lessons that UK digital businesses should take away from what’s happening in Geneva?

There is a lot of good will about the UK taking its own seat at the WTO. We are seen as an honest broker and someone who will be able to offer a valuable contribution across a range of discussions, including on ecommerce. However, that good will shouldn’t be mistaken to a willingness to turn a blind eye.  There remain real concerns over the UK and EU’s work to create the UK’s own free-standing schedule and we should expect the schedule to be challenged when it is finally published. 

Secondly, the ecommerce discussions are progressing well and there is a real ambition to produce a set of principles that advance the ability of countries to take advantage of digital trade. But there remain a large number of countries who are really reticent to engage with the discussions, in part because of fears about being left behind by the digital divide. If this is to become a full WTO discussion then a lot of work is going to be needed to support those countries currently outside the tent to build their understanding of ecommerce, and to build their own infrastructure, to show them the benefits of engagement. Some of that can come at a country to country level, but businesses too have to pick up the gauntlet.

And finally, there remains a real challenge for the UK in connecting up its domestic policies to its international priorities. If the UK is going to succeed in making Global Britain a reality, then it is vital that we do not become more protectionist back home. We must champion the kind of open, flexible market economy that has built the UK’s digital economy and avoid knee-jerk measures, whether on internet regulation, taxation or government procurement, that cut across our ambitions to open up world trade. That will require some difficult discussions in the years to come but is an agenda that techUK is fully signed up to help deliver.

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