This brief builds on an earlier note published in 2020, providing an update on the e-commerce Joint Statement Initiative negotiations among a group of WTO Members. It describes how the negotiations have been affected by the new context of COVID-19 and highlights the pandemic’s impacts on e-commerce, economic development, and gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) aspects. Finally, the brief gives an overview of the negotiations’ key issues where there are indications of convergence, and others where divergence remains, as the group prepares for the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12).
On December 13, 2017, at the Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires, 71 Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) released a Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on electronic commerce (E-commerce). In this first JSI declaration, they announced that they would begin “exploratory work together toward future WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce.” (WTO, 2017). On January 25, 2019, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, 76 WTO members released a second JSI announcing the launch of negotiations on trade-related aspects of e-commerce. The Statement indicated their intention to “achieve a high standard outcome that builds on existing WTO agreements and frameworks with the participation of as many WTO Members as possible” (WTO, 2019). A year later, on January 24, 2020, Ministers of the participating WTO Members announced that they “agreed to develop a consolidated negotiating text by MC12”2 from the various proposals submitted to date, confirming these plans in a joint press release following their informal meeting in Davos.
Less than two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Europe and throughout the rest of the world. In-person meetings were no longer a safe possibility. Consequently, several WTO and WTO-related meetings were cancelled, including JSI meetings, and the WTO’s then-DirectorGeneral Roberto Azevêdo confirmed that holding MC12 as initially scheduled in June 2020 is “no longer feasible”. The General Council would then have to decide on new dates for MC12, which is now scheduled to take place in Geneva, Switzerland, during the week of 29 November 20214. Amid these challenges and uncertainties, and after a break of a few months, the work under the JSI continued in 2020 in virtual and hybrid formats. On December 7, 2020, the JSI co-conveners Australia, Japan, and Singapore circulated a consolidated negotiating text among the participants, a group which now counts 86 WTO Members. They announced that in 2021 the work “will intensify… to further narrow differences and find potential landing zones” (WTO, 2020a).
This brief gives a stocktaking of the e-commerce JSI negotiations and sets it in the new context of COVID-19 outbreak since early 2020. It builds on a previous brief which covered the history of ecommerce in the WTO and the latest updates of the e-commerce JSI up to January 2020. It highlights the pandemic’s impacts on e-commerce, economic development, and gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) aspects. It explores how the e-commerce JSI text reflects some of the issues that have emerged from COVID-19. Finally, the brief gives an overview of the negotiations’ key issues where convergence appears to be taking place, and others where divergence remains, ahead of the new MC12 date of December 2021.