Commentary: Mixed grades for the G20 trade ministers meeting

Mark Agnew is the Senior Director of International Policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Another day of international virtual summitry came with the G20 Trade Ministers meeting on May 14th to discuss trade measures and COVID-19. Given the wide range of countries at the table, what is said needs to reflect the views of Western industrialized countries such as Canada, Germany, and Italy, but also countries such as Russia, China, and India.

The success of these G20 gatherings is measured against the infamous “communique” and how firmly countries committed to their commitments. Was it a binary we will do x or y, or was it full of conditional words like “may,” “should,” “explore,” “consider,” and “seek.”

So how did G20 Trade Ministers do with their most recent meeting?

The phrase “targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary” has featured regularly in the international diplomacy thesaurus these days when describing trade restrictions that countries introduce in response to COVID-19. The phrase also made a cameo appearance in the last G20 Trade Ministers statement on March 30th. Sounds sensible on the surface, but unfortunately leaves wide room for interpretation on what it means in practice. Presently numerous export restrictions remain in place globally. Things have improved in large measure because of the advocacy being undertaken through our global business networks, but the private sector needs to keep up the pressure on governments. Grade on this issue is a B.

This G20 statement was heavy on encouraging other government departments to do stuff. G20 digital ministers received two encouragements and G20 transport ministers got four. There is nothing inherently wrong in the content, but it does dilute the overall impact of trade ministers’ messaging. If there is nothing to say, probably best to leave it. Grade on this issue is a C.

Transparency is critical for companies to navigate this rapidly shifting landscape. Transparency (or some form thereof) got four mentions and a dedicated sub-heading. Discouraging to see in one spot countries will only “endeavor” to be transparent. This should be a quick and easy with no caveated language. Grade on this issue is a D.

Not wanting to position it as all bad, there was some good content on trade facilitation measures (in everday person speak these are the policies that enable goods to move across borders). There was good specific references to the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and information sharing on medical suppliers. Grade on this issue is an A.

As noted earlier, the wide range of countries around the table is inherently a constraining factor for how direct and specific the G20 can be. This statement gets an overall grade of B-.

If you want to compare notes to something more substantive, the Canadian government worked with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Singapore to deliver a much stronger series of commitments earlier in May. It is not perfect, but with the statement comes with far fewer qualifiers and it is much more focused.

International diplomacy is a game of inches, so take the wins where you can. Businesses though are hurting. They need certainty and action. The key role for the Chamber in using our international platforms through the OECD, International Chamber of Commerce, and other places is to keep up the pressure on governments to make commitments and then stick to them.

– Mark Agnew