Micro, Small, and Medium-Sized Enterprises: Key Developments and Update in the WTO Informal Working Group Discussions

At the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference of December 2017, a group of WTO Members issued a joint statement establishing an informal working group on Micro, Small, and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs). The overarching objective of the Group is to promote the integration of MSMEs in the multilateral trading system. Building on an earlier brief, this note provides an update on the WTO MSMEs Informal Working Group’s (IWG) work for June – December 2020. It highlights the impacts of the recent COVID19 pandemic on MSMEs, including women-led and women-owned MSMEs, and the interventions taken so far.

The structured discussions on investment facilitation date back to January 2018, kicking off just weeks after a group of 70 World Trade Organization (WTO) Members signed a joint statement confirming their intent to hold structured discussions that would “identify and develop the elements of a framework for facilitating foreign direct investments.” (WTO, 2017, December) This statement, released on the sidelines of the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2017, confirmed that the group would design this framework around the following objectives: “improve the transparency and predictability of investment measures; streamline and speed up administrative procedures and requirements; and enhance international cooperation, information sharing, the exchange of best practices, and relations with relevant stakeholders, including dispute prevention.”

According to the 2017 statement, the framework is meant to enshrine governments’ right “to regulate in order to meet their policy objectives” and be “flexible, adaptable, and responsive” over time, while excluding from its scope the areas of market access, investment protection, and investor-state dispute settlement. The statement further acknowledges that the discussions “shall also seek to clarify the framework’s relationship and interaction” with existing WTO provisions and “with current investment commitments among Members” (WTO, 2017, December)

The first year of structured discussions saw participating WTO Members develop a “checklist” of issues that could fall under the different objectives named in the Buenos Aires statement. This work took place over most of 2018, after which Members sought to compile a selection of “text- based examples” from the WTO Agreements, international investment agreements, regional trade agreements, domestic laws, and other policy instruments that related to the issues named in the checklist. This exercise led to the crafting of a “working document” in 2019 that would help clarify what the elements of this framework could look like, which in turn was followed by the development of a “streamlined text” that was circulated in January 2020. Both texts were prepared by the chair of these discussions, under his own responsibility. Throughout the rest of 2020, as will be described in this brief, negotiators have worked from successive “informal consolidated texts,” along with separate “Revised Draft Texts,” both circulated by the group’s coordinator under his responsibility for discussion.

As of September 2020, participating Members are now in negotiating mode, with the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) in November/December 2021 slated to be a significant milestone in the process. In the interim, participating Members are now focusing their attention on an expected “Easter Text,” which the group’s coordinator plans to circulate in April 2021 and which will replace the existing “Informal Consolidated Text” that has served as one of the primary bases for discussion, while bringing together the separate “Revised Draft Texts” also under review. Future drafting through the second quarter of 2021 will be based on this Easter document, according to a coordinator’s summary of the January 2021 meeting, and is likely to give a clearer sense of what a final negotiated text may entail. (INF/IFD/R/20)

This stocktaking brief provides an update on the structured discussions and subsequent negotiations, focusing on those developments that have taken place since the release of thestreamlined text in early 2020, as indicated above.1 Along with the procedural steps and transitions undertaken over the past year, we also refer to the wider context of COVID-19 and what the pandemic has meant for investment flows and governance processes. Lastly, we provide an overview of the latest available version of the investment facilitation texts, including the Informal Consolidated Text and Revised Draft Text, as of February 2021, and outline where the talks are expected to go next.