Posts Tagged Trade
Do the newly negotiated EU rules on endocrine disruptors illustrate regulatory chill /the ‘freezing effect’ of international trade law?
The new European Commission proposals on endoctrine disruptors are, of course’ ‘science based’. It has been reported (EurActiv, 12 December 2016 and last consulted by me on 13 December) that publication of the proposals was followed by a closed door meeting (minutes of which were released only after a freedom of information request) between the EC and a select number of countries (US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay on 13 July this year). Discussion centered around the potential WTO incompatibility of parts of the EC proposal, particularly those surrounding the tolerance levels for endocrine disruptors present in imported substances (food and feed in particularly). The EC reportedly are prepared to replace “negligible exposure” with “negligible risk from exposure”. The EC defend the latter, arguing it might even ban more, rather than less imported substances: for even if there is only negligible exposure, that exposure may still be a risk. Opponents suggest that the insertion of a risk approach has sacrified precaution on the altar of science.
A few comments.
Firstly, the report (and potentially even the EC itself) repeats the misleading assertion that the debate concerns either science or precaution. Precaution is NOT unscientific. The very trigger of the precautionary approach is science.
Next, the case is reported at a time a lot of people are getting jittery about the regulatory co-operation mechanisms in free trade agreements such as CETA and TTIP. The meeting and the subsequent EC reaction to our trading partners’ comments, would then represent an example of the ‘freezing effect’ in international trade: with our trading partners flying the flag of WTO incompatibility, the EU would then have caved in to threats of litigation in Geneva. Yet in reality WTO input by fellow WTO Members is at least as old as the WTO itself, indeed it predates it. The 1978 Tokyo Standards Code already obliged the then GATT Contracting Parties to notify their draft standards to the GATT Secretariat. The very point of notification and transparency is that the issues raised are being discussed and may indeed lead to the draft standard being adopted. Changes made to REACH, to name but one example, reflected concerns of fellow WTO Members and REACH can hardly be said to pander to industry’s demands.
However there needs to be one core appreciation in this process: just as notification serves transparency (anyone can consult the TBT notification gateway to review draft measures that have been notified), so too should the process of review after reception of the comments, be conducted in a transparent manner. This clearly has not happened here. By conducting these meetings in private, and by refusing to release the minutes until prompted to do so, EC services have given the impression that there is more than meets the eye. In times where even CETA has not yet been ratified, that is most definitely the wrong approach.
Cheers to that! The CJEU on excise duties, alcohol, packaging and regulatory autonomy in Valev Visnapuu.
Postscript 10 December 2015 For a similar exercise, see Sharpston AG in C-472/14 Canadian Oil.
Less is sometimes more so I shall not attempt to summarise all issues in Case C-198/14 Valev Visnapuu. The case makes for sometimes condensed reading however it perfectly illustrates the way to go about dealing with obstacles to trade put in place for environmental, public health or, as in this case, both reasons.
Mr Visnapuu essentially forum shops Estonia’s lower prices on alcohol by offering Finnish clients home delivery of alcoholic beverages purchased there. No declaration of import is made to Finish customs and excise, thereby circumventing (accusation of course is that this is illegal) a variety of excise duties imposed for public health and environmental reasons, as well as a number of requirements relating to retail licenses and container requirements (essentially a deposit-return system) for beverages.
Confronted with a demand to settle various tax debts, as well as with a suspended prison sentence, Mr Visnapuu turns to EU law as his defence in a criminal proceeding. The CJEU then had to settle a variety of classic trade and environment /public health questions: whether the packaging and packaging waste Directive is exhaustive on the issue of deposit-return system (answer: no and hence the system additionally needs to be assessed vis-a-vis EU primary law: Article 34 ff TFEU or Article 110 TFEU); whether in the context of that Directive excise duties on packaging may be imposed (yes) and packaging integrated into a functioning return system exempt (yes; in the absence of indications that imported systems are less likely to enjoy the exemption); whether the relevant excise duties fall under Article 34 ff TFEU or Article 110 TFEU (answer: it is part of an internal system of taxation hence needs to be judged vis-a-vis Article 110 TFEU); and finally whether the retail licence requirement needs to be judged viz Article 34 or Article 37 TFEU (answer: mixed, given the various requirements at stake). Final judgment on proportionality is down to the Finnish courts.
Readers in need of a tipple would be advised to postpone until after reading the judgment. Again though the case shows that if one keeps a clear head, classic structures of applying EU law go a long way in untangling even complex matters of law and fact.
I have just recently stumbled across the EU’s Bioeconomy strategy, classified in the administrative organogram at least under ‘Research and innovation’. It could also be DG Industry. Or DG Trade. Or DG Env. Or indeed DG Agri. Tucking it away under Research and innovation was a good idea, I believe: best to keep it safely away from daily policy concerns and ditto lobbying. The Bioeconomy – which is defined as encompassing the sustainable production of renewable resources from land, fisheries and aquaculture environments and their conversion into food, feed, fiber bio-based products and bio-energy as well as the related public goods – is seen by the EC as a successor to the EU’s Biosociety program, which however was more scientific in outlook (lots of talk of new technologies).
A big gap in its approach, to me at least, is its lack of discussion on reduced consumption and ‘need‘ (the Club of Rome has some powerful insight into this) which is a pitty. It talks mostly about increasing and diversifying ‘output’, rather than on reducing it or matching it to true need. For in its current outlook, the Bioeconomy feels more like a postersite for EU ‘innovative’ technologies than one for foresight in development priorities. And no, that is not properly done elsewhere in the EC.
Postscript January 2016 Reportedly the Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCITRAL rules, has declined jurisdiction. The award is to be made public here once it has been cleared of confidential data.
Postscript June 2015: I have many other posts on the issue however I thought I”d here that in June 2015, Ukraine suspended its complaint against Australia. Simon Lester collates why. And end of May 2015, Norway Norway TBT plain packaing notification its plain packaging plans to the WTO TBT Committee, with extensive pre-emption of legal arguments against it.
Postscript 22 10 2013: on the BIT front, see the interesting defence by the European Commission of BITs in October 2013 here. Reference is made ia to the ongoing Philip Morris and Vatenfall (Nuclear energy) issues.
Faculty everywhere have been handed a treasure trove of exam questions, courtesy of ‘plain packaging’ (students please look away now). A variety of States are in the process of introducing ‘plain packaging’ requirements on tobacco products. Although they of course vary in detail, they generally require tobacco manufacturers to strip packaging of all tailored corporate content, resorting instead to prescribed generic packaging. The ‘plain’ packaging required is generally limited to brand name in standardised fashion (font size and lettering, colour…), joined by a number of health warnings (including, sometimes, images), excise duties requirements and ingredients listings.
Plain packaging ticks all the boxes of a classic ‘domestic regulatory autonomy’ dispute. It pitches the freedom of a sovereign State to pursue ‘regulatory’ interests (environment, public health, consumer protection, stability of the economy etc.) against the free trade commitments which the same State has voluntarily committed to. These trade commitments take the form of multilateral (such as the WTO, the EU’s Internal Market, or NAFTA) or bilateral (such as bilateral free trade agreements and customs unions) agreements. They most often do not, but sometimes do include procedural rights for private parties (as opposed to simply the States which have concluded the agreement) to launch legal proceedings should free trade (arguably) have been infringed. Such standing for private parties is the case in many BITs, i.e. Bilateral Investment Treaties, as well as for instance (subject to a number of whistles and bells), NAFTA.
Free trade agreements are not generally oblivious to the continuing desire of participating States to regulate the interests referred to above. Consequently they include room for ‘domestic regulatory autonomy’ to continue after the conclusion of the agreement, subject of course to checks and balances.
This fragile balance between free trade and regulatory autonomy is exactly what the current debate on plain packaging is all about. The issue is being fought on many fronts: At the World Trade Organisation, Ukraine have filed a complaint in March 2012 against Australia’s plain packaging laws on the basis of the TRIPS (intellectual property) and TBT (technical barriers to trade; product regulations) Agreements. Ukraine’s complaint is supported by a number of WTO Members with tobacco manufacturing interests.
At a constitutional level, issues include free (commercial) speech (see here for the related issue of graphic warnings), expropriation (of the trademark), non-discrimination (why no plain packaging on alcohol, for instance).
At a level of BITs, the issue has rejuvinated the ‘regulatory takings’ debate (do new regulatory requriements of host States amount to a ‘regulatory taking’ (as compared to a straightforward expropriation) that may be incompatible with investment protection requirements. The Uruguay-Switserland (see here and enter search term ‘ICSID Case No. ARB/10/7’) and Australia-Hong Kong BITs are among those affected. One imagines that the necessity of the measure will be hotly contested, as the actual health impact of the measure is not entirely certain. See the (controversial) ruling of the European Free Trade Association’s Court on the related issue of display bans here and the excellent analysis of prof Alemanno.
One will have gathered: all of this is excellent material for those of us teaching Trade and regulatory law. Geert.