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World Trade Organization leadership, it seems, could teach global supply chains a thing or two about resilience. After Omicron forced member countries to cancel this week’s major ministerial meeting at short notice, Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala quickly stated that no one would give up and planned to resume talks. There is an idea to postpone the ministerial conference to March, although that seems a bit ambitious to us. But in any case, Okonjo-Iweala said she would try to push the big issues like fisheries subsidies and the renunciation of intellectual property for Covid-19 vaccines through negotiations at ambassadorial level in Geneva.
A WTO deal on the regulation of domestic services, not huge but symbolically helpful, is also coming to fruition. We are still very skeptical of the progress on IP lifting, although there are some more hopeful noises regarding fishing. At least they’ll try. Today’s main contribution deals with the importance of the change of government in Berlin for German and EU trade policy, while Mapped waters shows us why the recent increase in Covid cases in Germany will be reflected in supply chain nibbles.
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The Greens go with the grain
The age of traffic lights is just around the corner and the new coalition of Social Democrats / Free Democrats / Greens is about to take power in Germany. On some issues the parties come from, shall we say, opposing perspectives – the fiscal sadism of the ordoliberal FDP versus the relative common sense of the SPD. A similar contradiction in trade could be predicted between the traditionally market-based FDP and the Greens, which will be given the trade ministry for economics and the climate. The Greens criticize Angela Merkel’s strategy of friendly dealings with China and want to charge trade agreements with human rights and environmental concerns.
In practice there could be more coalition unity and more continuity with Merkel. The German Greens in the Bundestag are actually quite pragmatic when it comes to their relationship with the economy: Mikko Huotari, managing director of the Merics think tank, points out that they demonstrably support the German export economy at the state level. Big industrial companies like Volkswagen are pretty good at advancing their interests anyway, no matter who is in government. In any case, Olaf Scholz’s Chancellery will retain a large say in trade policy.
The most interesting part is the overall context. In view of the disillusionment of the German public and companies with their dealings with China, German politicians tend to be skeptical of traditional trade agreements that focus exclusively on access to export markets.
Reinhard Bütikofer, the veteran German MEP and China hawk of the China hawks, who was part of the negotiating team of the Greens coalition, unlikely quoted former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schr this weekÖwho, not typically one of his political heroes. Regarding foreign policy, he said: “We don’t want to do everything differently, but we want to do a lot better”. His quote reflects an instinctive respect for consensus as German voters brought a coalition government to power for the entire post-war period.
Bütikofer argues that an emerging China-skeptical consensus is aligning the German economy, human rights and national security. A salutary lesson was the fate of the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI), which Merkel’s government enforced on behalf of the German export sector in the last days of her EU presidency last year. China’s subsequent move to impose sanctions on parliamentarians across Europe (including Bütikofer, to his apparent satisfaction) and even on think tanks like Merics, resulted in CAI being thrown in the freezer.
It is possible that CAI will get support from Germany and a majority in the European Parliament if the sanctions are lifted and Beijing works seriously on rapprochement. The SPD, with its roots in the industrial unions, instinctively wants to support German industry. But China’s growing belligerence and “double circulation” strategy, which prioritizes the domestic economy over exports, suggest that CAI could be a linchpin in EU-China relations. “I have never advocated decoupling,” said Bütikofer. “On the other hand, we see a certain decoupling of Chinese characteristics and we have to deal with that.”
In general, under constant pressure from France, EU policy has shifted towards skepticism towards the traditional model of trade agreements.
Case in point is the postponement of the EU-Mercosur trade deal over concerns from EU environmentalists that Brazil is burning down the Amazon, a view also conveniently held by French ranchers who are threatened by beef imports. In response to public opposition, Merkel calmly expressed “considerable doubts” about the deal last year and stopped actively pushing for it. The new coalition declaration goes even further and explicitly calls for energetic measures against deforestation as a condition for ratification.
Another example: The European Commission has prepared a number of unilateral (sorry, “autonomous”) weapons against foreign villainy (not the technical term), including an anti-coercion instrument, new corporate due diligence for environmental and human rights standards, and an instrument to discourage subsidized foreign companies from sabotaging public procurement in the EU.
Germany has often been cautious about these instruments, warning the Commission not to overburden industry or to initiate foreign retaliation against exports. Huotari said that, particularly on procurement, “the message to the Commission now is that what you are doing is good and we are not going to put as many obstacles in your way as in the past”.
There are other aspects of German trade policy that we will examine in future newsletters, in particular, the CO2 marginal prices. But our preliminary conclusion is: We not only have to watch out for the exchange of Scholz for Merkel, but also for fundamental movements in the European focus on China and trade.
Regular readers will be aware of our view that much of the chaos we see in supply chains is due to a huge shift in demand away from services and towards consumer durables. With the world and his grandma using the pandemic as an excuse to stock up on everything from laptops to dumbbells, it’s no wonder the system is under pressure.
To get a feel for the extent of the shift – and to what extent it is still important – we present the following graphic. It shows that the increase in Covid cases in Germany has led to restaurant bookings being canceled. This frees up even more disposable income that can be spent on physical goods in the run-up to Christmas. Claire Jones
scoop by Aime Williams and Andy Bounds in Brussels: The USA is holding back from settling the dispute over steel and aluminum tariffs with Great Britain because London allegedly threatens Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement.
The US Progressive Policy Institute’s Trade Fact of the Week states that Donald Trump tariffs likely to increase by about 0.5 percent inflation.
Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute systematically examines why Trump / Biden trade policy is the way it is.
Intel’s CEO said that until US legislation is too safe semiconductor supply, the government should invest more in American companies (Nikkei, $) than in Samsung and TSMC to prevent intellectual property from “returning to Asia”.
Good news for trade, less for the planet. Great miners in Indonesia rose again into the profit zone (Nikkei, $) in the first nine months of the year China, India and neighboring South East Asia as main export destinations. Alan Beattie and Francesca Regalado
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