On 9 June 2020, the Latvian Foreign Ministry’s Parliamentary Secretary Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica took part in an informal video conference of EU Foreign Affairs Council addressing questions related to trade policy.
During the online gathering, trade ministers discussed matters linked to the WTO and the full enabling of its work, particularly in view of the disruptions caused to the multilateral trading system by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lifting the restrictions on travel and trade are key to returning to a free market that functions in a regular manner which has been the driving force in economic growth for decades, Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica asserted. In this context, she also mentioned the cooperation of the Baltic States in opening their common borders to one another as a significant step toward restoration of the health of their economies.
According to updated European Commission estimates, due to the strong impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there could be a 10 to 16 percent downturn in global trade already in 2020, with EU27 exports shrinking between 9 to 15% (282-470mn EUR), and with imports expected to decrease by between 11 to 14% (313-398mn EUR).
Taking into account changes in the world, including those stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan recommended initiating a review of the EU’s trade policy. Already on 16 June, the trade policy review will be launched with a broad and inclusive consultation process. The public debate on this review will be guided by a short consultation paper which will set out a series of questions and there will be discussions with all key stakeholders (Member States, the European Parliament, business, civil society). Responding to this announcement the Parliamentary Secretary explained Latvia’s position on the matter saying that the EU, also after moving past the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, should be maintaining a trade policy course which is rule-based, fair, and liberal. Adapting to the effects of COVID-19 requires a purposeful and carefully-crafted strategy, she said.
During the meeting, an emphasis was placed on standing up for EU’s own strategic interests and promotion of manufacturing capacity, long-term EU priorities which will be as important tomorrow as they are today. Diversification in sources of imported products as well as in exports, in the process of expanding the network of free trade agreements, was another topic for discussion and Commissioner Hogan confirmed that supporting the development of bilateral trade relations will be a Commission priority.
EU Ministers for foreign trade also gave special attention to the work and activities of the WTO. The unexpected early departure of the WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo this August has created an urgency to swiftly ensure continuity in leadership. Ministers took stock of the selection process. Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica expressed support for the idea of presenting an EU candidate, and that, under any circumstances, a candidate should be supported who generally aligns with EU values and objectives in the area of trade. It is truly important, she said, to search for a candidate that is capable of implementing WTO reforms and dealing with its current multilateral trade policy challenges.
The Council turned its attention also to the renewal of the WTO’s daily work. It was several times emphasised during the video conference, that the regular WTO programme of work must be restored and that talks underway before the COVID-19 crisis hit ought to be restarted, for example, in the area of fisheries. The Parliamentary Secretary expressed approval for the WTO’s role in analysing trade flows; highlighting implementation of both trade- facilitating and trade-restricting measures; as well as ensuring transparency, which is of particular importance. The Parliamentary Secretary said that Latvia, in principle, supports the Commission’s initiative to facilitate access in times of crisis to healthcare products including pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and equipment, through elimination of import tariffs and also through WTO non-tariff disciplines and reduction of non-tariff barriers.
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