'Week Ahead' and trade agenda, Latest news

Week Ahead: Procurement, Northern Ireland, Agri-fish, ECT, UK India

While things remain quiet at the WTO in Geneva, the trade policy churn is on in Brussels and London. A preview of selected meetings brought to you by Rob Francis, Chris Horseman and Iana Dreyer. *With one correction: The International Trade Committee leadership does not appear set for renewal at this stage of the EP leadership reorganisation.

International Procurement Instrument: ‘trilogue’ begins in earnest

Inter-institutional negotiations to finalise a regulation aimed at fostering ‘reciprocity’ in EU public procurement markets are starting in earnest on Thursday (20 January) after the European Parliament voted on its position before Christmas.

The French presidency of the Council has made finalising the regulation one of its top priorities.

Much will depend on how the member states react to the Parliament’s at times radically opposed views on some aspects of the regulation. Areas that need resolving include the room for member states to over-ride this legislation when public works projects are seen to be a national priority. MEPs want the European Commission to have the last word should there be an exemption to the IPI rules – and not leave that judgement to the member state itself. The Parliament’s view would upset Hungary first and foremost.

MEPs have also put away with the notion that there should be exemptions to the disciplines included in the regulation for small companies, something member states have been keen on. But MEPs consider that bidders from the world’s poorest countries should be exempted – something the Council did not muster. More background here.

Agriculture ministers discuss FTAs

European Union agriculture and fisheries ministers are meeting today, among others to take stock of “trade-related agricultural issues.”

The exchange of views will be broad and cover the performance of EU agri-food exports, the EU’s current trade agreement negotiations with Australia, Indonesia, and New Zealand, and the latest developments on the agriculture discussions at the WTO.

How to promote sustainable development within trade agreements will also be touched on, as well as what is termed “the European model of sustainable production”.

The EU’s FTA agenda appears to be “unfreezing” – today’s meeting could shed some further light on how EU member states want the EU’s trade negotiations to proceed in the next few months.

Northern Ireland talks resume – but any change in substance?

The never-ending negotiations over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol resume this week, with EU and UK officials getting back to their deliberations over how to operate the Irish Sea trade ‘border’ between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

A change of personnel has been made on the British side, with foreign secretary Liz Truss having taken over responsibility for the negotiations following the resignation just before Christmas of Lord David Frost.

And a change of tone is evident too, to judge from what was evidently a cordial getting-to-know-you dinner between Truss and her EU counterpart, Commission vice-president Maroŝ Šefčovič, last Thursday (13 January).

“We share a desire for a positive relationship between the EU and the UK underpinned by our shared belief in democracy and freedom,” said a joint communiqué issued by Truss and Šefčovič following their dinner.

“We are now going into intensive negotiations to work towards a negotiated solution to sort out these very real issues for the people of Northern Ireland,” Truss told reporters afterwards. “I think there is a deal to be done.”

This is a noticeably more upbeat message than was customarily delivered during Frost’s reign as Northern Ireland trade supremo.

Is UK is compromising mood?

What is currently unclear, however, is whether – or what extent – there has been a change in the substance of the UK negotiating position.

While the UK seems to be backing away from its demand – fiercely opposed by the EU – that the role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland should be downgraded, it has yet to endorse the proposals made by Šefčovič in October to reduce the bureaucratic burden on businesses moving goods into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

A clearer picture of where the talks are heading should emerge when Truss and Šefčovič meet again next Monday (24 January).

Energy Charter Treaty modernisation negotiations Round 10

Negotiations to modernise the Energy Charter Treaty resume this week after a stock-take meeting of signatories last December. The negotiations will be steered by a new secretary-general, the Luxembourgeois Guy Lentz.

The negotiations are far from over and will start entering into the ‘thick’ of the matter this year. So far, negotiators have been able to substantially agree on two topics: the ‘definition of investor’ and ‘transfers related to investments’.

But on the more substantive issues such as defining what energy source or sector will be covered or not, or changes to the scope of investor protections (the format of ISDS is not part of the talks), negotiators are still far apart. The EU has tabled a phase-out of fossil fuel protections as part of the ECT renegotiation process – a move that is controversial with some ECT members. The introduction of sustainability obligations is also proving a delicate balancing exercise.

Round one for UK-India FTA negotiations

The first round of negotiations between the UK and India over a future free trade agreement is to be held this week.

Officials are moving swiftly to get the talks off the ground, after London and New Delhi announced the commencement of the long-promised promised negotiations last Thursday.

Given the enthusiasm shown by both sides for a possible ‘early harvest’ interim agreement, special attention will be focused on the topics which the negotiators choose to focus on in the initial stages of the discussions.

The UK has made it clear that it will be pressing for big cuts in India’s import tariffs on products like whisky and cars, while India wants improved terms of access for UK work and study visas.

It is not evident, however, that these will necessarily be the easiest topics on which to reach mutual agreement, given the political sensitivities on either side.

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