June 28, 2023
At meetings of the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) on 19 to 23 June, WTO members discussed regulatory cooperation on cybersecurity and on intangible digital products. They also aired a total of 68 trade concerns, 10 of which were raised for the first time, regarding digital issues, public health concerns and product standards, among other topics. Members also shared their progress on improving regulatory transparency and on using the ePing platform to track information on product requirements.
The new chair of the TBT Committee, Anna Vitie (Finland), drew attention to a new WTO brochure highlighting the work of the TBT Committee in 2022. “Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement: 10 key results from 2022”. The brochure can be downloaded here.
Thematic Session: Regulatory cooperation between members on intangible digital products
The session highlighted particular challenges regarding regulating emerging digital technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, and their associated intangible digital products. These challenges relate to the changing properties of these products as they evolve and the fact that regulating these technologies encompasses issues such as privacy, and ethics that are less prone to harmonization, thus increasing the chance of significant regulatory fragmentation across WTO members.
Members stressed that, with various regulations on such emerging digital technologies currently being developed at national or regional levels, it is important to consider the crucial role of international standards in addressing regulatory fragmentation. At the same time, given the nature of accompanying issues such as privacy, the limits of harmonization via international standards was also recognized.
Members highlighted the important role of the TBT Agreement and the TBT Committee in ensuring regulatory harmonisation via international standards or when this is not possible, in promoting coherence and avoiding unnecessary trade restrictions. This is particularly important for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), speakers stressed. Simplified, internationally harmonised regulations and technical assistance can help small companies to improve their regulatory compliance in this area.
Thematic Session: Regulatory cooperation between members on cybersecurity
Members highlighted the increased use of regulatory measures in efforts to tackle cyber threats. The session underlined the need to develop a common understanding of existing and future cybersecurity risks that would allow members to address cybersecurity challenges more efficiently.
Speakers stressed that international standards are key to countering cybersecurity threats, citing the work of standard-setting agencies. Government and private sector stakeholders need to work in a coordinated and collaborative manner with standard-making bodies to address cybersecurity concerns and digital governance, they said.
WTO members also shared their national experiences in designing, adopting and implementing regulatory measures and standards on cybersecurity.
The TBT Agreement, including its provisions on transparency, was highlighted as being of particular importance for cybersecurity regulation. The role of the TBT Committee was also considered crucial as a global forum where members can cooperate and exchange concerns and experiences in this area.
Specific trade concerns
Members raised 10 new trade concerns, and 58 previous ones. The new trade concerns covered a wide range of issues, including alcohol labelling, digital issues and cybersecurity, chemicals, electric vehicles as well as food and beverages.
Ireland’s proposed public health measure requiring alcoholic beverage labels to carry various health warning messages was discussed at length (notified in G/TBT/N/IRL/4). The concern was raised by the United States, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and others. While supportive of Ireland’s goal of communicating health risks related to alcohol, these members voiced concerns about potential trade restrictions. They also emphasized the additional costs and complexities introduced by country-specific labels and questioned the accuracy of the proposed warning messages, suggesting they lacked objective scientific backing.
Other members underlined the importance of harmonised regulation between the EU Single Market and those of its members states. The European Union explained that the measure was designed to provide consumers with straightforward information on the risks associated with alcohol. It added that the measure is also designed to minimize impact on cross-border trade, allowing necessary label information to be added via stickers after export, and before the product’s sale within Ireland. The existence of a three-year transition period to allow businesses to adapt to the new requirements was also underlined. Additionally, the EU is working on a new EU-wide food regulation, including alcohol labelling, but it is currently in the early stages.
Other concerns addressed packaging requirements for agricultural products and tax stamps on alcoholic and tobacco products. Standards introduced for footwear and textiles for consumer protection were also raised. Other concerns dealt with battery waste management and energy conservation.
Several WTO members took the floor to announce progress in their discussions of trade concerns. Japan announced progress with the United States on its concern related to US products containing certain chemical substances, China reported on positive developments with Brazil on general requirements for product certification. It also reported on progress on its discussion with India regarding manufacturers of solar photovoltaic modules.
The full list of trade concerns raised can be found here.
A one-day meeting focusing on transparency provided an opportunity for members to discuss various services of the ePing platform, for both tracking committee work and for reaching out to domestic stakeholders.
The committee also kicked off its work on the preparation of a good practice guide on how to comment on members’ notifications. This work, to be spearheaded by a diverse group of volunteer delegations, is expected to help members make better use of the large volume of notifications circulated by their trading partners. Delegations also benefitted from a training session dedicated to HS codes used for the classification of traded goods and explored how to improve product-related information contained in notifications.
Updates to the committee
Deputy Director-General Jean-Marie Paugam shared with the committee the main takeaways from the Trade Forum for Decarbonisation Standards in the Steel Sector, which took place on 9 March. The forum brought together WTO members, standard-setting bodies and the largest iron and steel producers to discuss the role of coherent and transparent standards in accelerating the global use of low-carbon technologies and in avoiding trade frictions.
DDG Paugam noted that the Forum helped to identify the main challenges and opportunities in the area of decarbonisation and to shed light on key considerations for international cooperation. The forum also provided ideas on how the WTO could help in the future.
The WTO Secretariat updated the committee on the pilot Transparency Champions Programme, a six-month capacity-building activity aimed at scaling up the implementation and benefits of the WTO’s transparency mechanisms. The first pilot programme targeting officials from African countries concluded in April 2023 in Nairobi. The Secretariat shared some concrete outcomes from the initiative, such as an increase in notifications from participating members, an increase in the number of ePing subscribers from the region and greater engagement in committee work.
The next TBT Committee formal meetings will take place from 7 to 10 November 2023.
Good regulatory practice and how e-commerce works in conformity assessment are the two topics for deeper discussion at the November meeting.
The TBT Committee agreed a timeline of work towards the adoption of the 10th Triennial Review in November 2024. More about the Triennial Review process is available here.