MSMEs New Issues - Joint Statements

Joint Statement on Micro, Small, and Medium-Sized Enterprises: History and latest developments in the Informal Working Group

The brief outlines the history and developments of MSME-related discussions in the World Trade Organization (WTO) context, looking specifically at MSME-related issues at the WTO as well as in other forums.

The past four years have seen the subject of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) grow in profile at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where a group of its Members has been examining what challenges these smaller companies face when engaging in world trade and how these can be alleviated. Heading into the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12), an informal working group of over 90 WTO Members dedicated to the issue has been working toward advancing a series of “outcomes” that could be presented at the event, along with pushing to formalize their work at the institution.

These discussions are unusual among WTO Members in that they focus on different categories of businesses, trying to unpack in detail how existing trade policy and practice may have varying effects depending on business size, especially relative to larger actors. A similar effort is underway by various WTO Members and Observers to consider how trade policy and practice affect women differently than men across multiple issue areas. Neither the discussion on MSMEs nor on gender is aiming to negotiate new rules, which is another notable difference in approach from current practice at the WTO.

At the time of this writing, the Informal Working Group (IWG) on MSMEs was still discussing what outcomes they could present for MC12, what form these might take, and whether they will obtain the necessary support ahead of the ministerial to present them as consensus documents. The recent postponement of the conference as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has also left the time frame for this process unclear, though work is expected to continue in the interim. Media reports currently suggest that the conference could now take place in mid- or late 2021, though a formal decision by the General Council had not been taken at the time of this writing (Inside U.S. Trade, 2020).

This brief provides an overview of the WTO-related discussions on MSMEs in recent years, with a particular focus on the work undertaken since the last Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2017. It outlines the current state of play as of late March 2020, while providing a detailed overview of the themes addressed to date in those informal discussions and what outcomes have been proposed. The brief was written primarily for trade negotiators in Geneva and in world capitals, regardless of whether their governments are involved in these MSME discussions. It also briefly considers related developments in regional trade agreements (RTAs)1 and in non-negotiating international forums that have taken place over the past 15 years, as well as the gender and social inclusion elements that have been raised in MSME-related trade discussions.