ICC Secretary General John W.H. Denton AO and B20 Chair Yousef Al-Benyan, co-hosted the meeting, which took place on 19 May and brought together online over 70 senior business leaders to discuss the role of trade policy and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. The meeting also suggested concrete measures for governments to mitigate the economic damage caused by the crisis and to lay the foundation for a strong and inclusive recovery. Participants represented companies of differing sizes from around to world, from a diverse range of sectors.
The meeting was organised and facilitated by WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, and followed a recent call to action from ICC and the WTO, issued in a joint statement, for a virtual business roundtable to provide “constructive recommendations to governments on trade policy measures that can be readily deployed to speed the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the immediate and mid-term”. WTO General Council Chair, Ambassador David Walker, also participated in the meeting.
Mr Denton said: “Maintaining a functioning trading system is vital to protect lives and livelihoods through the COVID-19 crisis. Governments and businesses must unite to resist protectionism taking root in the global economy. The private sector is uniquely placed to advise governments on how trade policy can be used to speed the response to the pandemic and enable a rapid economic recovery.
“In this context, we also need to move from talk to action on WTO reform so that it can once again live up to its founding promise of liberalising trade, opening up markets and enabling fair competition. That means finally completing fisheries subsidies negotiations, creating new rules on digital trade and e-commerce, providing greater support for small businesses and improving the inner workings of the WTO so that it can operate quickly, flexibly and with its ultimate users in mind – business.”
Participants stressed the importance of maintaining an uninterrupted supply of essential goods and services, and called for an effective and rapid implementation of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement. They also underscored the need for any COVID-related trade-restrictions to be targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, reflecting similar calls from the G20. The meeting also saw significant support for urgent conclusion of the work on fisheries subsidies, and for the Joint Statement Initiatives process to achieve new rules vital to business and to modern economies, such as e-commerce.
Participants also stressed that the WTO, and other relevant international organisations, have an important role in urging members to provide more transparency on COVID-19-related measures and in gathering examples of best practice in trade-related responses to the crisis. Many noted that SMEs were particularly vulnerable to such measures and therefore needed particular support.
Yousef Al-Benyan, Chair of the B20 Saudi Arabia said:
“As the world contends with COVID-19, the role of global trade and importance of global supply chains has never been more heightened. Through a coordinated international effort, unrestricted trade and investment can be part of the solution to this crisis and is critical to help us prepare for a recovery. I’m grateful to the WTO and ICC for assembling esteemed leaders to discuss the importance of a concerted action plan to address the pandemic and its impact on trade. Only through close international collaboration can we foster a resilient trade environment and diversified global supply chains to confront the challenges of both today and the future.”
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo said:
“Cooperation among governments, businesses, international organisations and other stakeholders will be critical for an effective policy response to COVID-19. That’s why I was happy to facilitate today’s dialogue with businesses. Companies of all sizes made concrete recommendations for policy action, including on trade, that would lay the groundwork for a strong and inclusive economic recovery. It was heartening to hear so much support for the predictability and certainty fostered by the multilateral trading system – as well as interest in on-going efforts to update the WTO rulebook.”