China, Europe and the future of the World Trade Organisation: difficult choices ahead!

Speakers: Mr John Farnell, Oxford

Discussant:  Mr Ignacio Garcia Bercero, Oxford


The World Trade Organisation, which oversees the multilateral trade system and adjudicates disputes between its members, is facing an existential crisis. It has failed to deliver major change over the past two decades, the United States under President Trump has disengaged from its work, its dispute settlement system has been suspended and its future is in doubt. China and the European Union, the world’s largest international traders, each see themselves as champions of multilateralism determined to save and improve the rules-based international trading system under WTO. Despite this common interest, however, they approach WTO reform with different priorities and divergent views on some fundamentals of economic management. At the beginning of a new decade of economic uncertainty, John Farnell will explore the degree of convergence and divergence between the Chinese and European positions on WTO reform and assess whether their differences can be bridged. Hypothetically, a positive outcome based on comprise can be postulated on purely economic grounds. But each side faces strong political pressures, internal and external, not to compromise. For example, is the EU prepared to take a different position on the future of WTO from the United States, given their longstanding economic and strategic links? Will China accept international rulemaking on subsidies and state-owned enterprises that imply fundamental change for its economic model? And what position will the United Kingdom take,  as a newly independent member of WTO with strong economic ties to the EU and the United States that would also like to improve its relations with China?


John Farnell is an Associate at the Oxford University China Centre and a Senior Adviser at the EU-Asia Centre in Brussels. In 2016 he co-authored, with Paul Irwin Crookes of the China Centre, a book on “The Politics of EU-China Economic Relations: an Uneasy Partnership” (Palgrave Macmillan), which highlighted the political obstacles facing the European Union in developing a normal economic relationship with China. His current research interests are the EU-China negotiations for a comprehensive investment treaty and the UK’s economic relations with China after Brexit. John was a senior official in the European Commission until 2013; his last job was Director for International Affairs in the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry.


Mr Garcia Bercero is Director at the European Commission responsible for bilateral trade relations with South Asia, South East Asia, Mediterranean and Middle East countries, Russia and the Eastern Neighbourhood. Since January 2012 he has been responsible for transatlantic trade relations and chief negotiator for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Mr Garcia Bercero has published numerous articles on trade related matters in different academic publications. During his fellowship (at St Antony's College) he intends to focus his research on how to reform the World Trade Organisation, including both its rule making and dispute settlement functions.