By John Bruton
It is welcome that, at last, the G20, representing the world’s most important countries, and 90% of the world’s population, is getting together in a teleconference to discuss the health and economic crisis caused by the Covid 19 virus. It has been obvious for several weeks that coordinated international action was going to be needed.
Given that the G20 was brought into being in 2009 to deal with precisely this type of global crisis, the banking crisis of 2008, it is amazing that it has taken the Saudi Presidency of the G20 so long to convene at meeting. They were pressed into doing so by India.
In 2009, when the G20 was first convened, there was a reasonable relationship between the two biggest world powers, the US and China. Gordon Brown of the UK was in the chair and substantial programme of action was agreed and implemented. The Financial Stability Board was set up, and a global programme of actions to stabilize banks was agreed and put into action.
China led the way in stimulating its economy through infrastructure spending and this helped get the global economy going again. Germany and Europe benefitted from this through exports.
Now that lives, and not just livelihoods, are at stake an even more vigorous programme of action from the G20 is needed.
The US and China need to stop sniping at one another and start cooperating. The US and China coming together to work on this global threat would give hope to the world.
Japan set a good example that the US might now follow, when the crisis first broke out in Wuhan. It donated protective equipment to Wuhan and Japanese MPs donated 5% of their personal salaries to the virus containment efforts in China. This was a remarkable gesture in light of the previous public hostility between these countries, going back to World War Two.
The Covid 19 crisis has revealed how much we all depend on the chronically underfunded World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO will be part of this teleconference convened by the Saudi Chairman of the meeting, King Salman.
In recent budgetary proposals, the US White actually proposed halving the US contribution the WHO. Instead ALL G20 members should agree to double their contributions to the WHO.
Trade barriers, many of them recently erected, are also hindering efforts to save lives.
The international Chamber of Commerce in Paris has said
“the recent escalation of trade barriers is now wreaking havoc in key medical supply chains”.
For example, restrictions on exports of life saving equipment, including masks, test kits, disinfectants and ventilators, have been introduced by some countries. The global trade in test kits is worth $186 billion and that in disinfectants is worth $308 billion.
The Global Trade Alert Team in Switzerland says that damaging export bans have been introduced by a list of countries including Bulgaria, France, India, the UK, Korea, and even by Saudi Arabia itself!
In the case of ventilators, export restrictions would be particularly damaging. There is no firm on the entire continent of Africa, and only one in Latin America, that is capable of manufacturing ventilators. And even the countries, that do have manufacturing capacity, will have to import some of the components.
Even soap and disinfectant have to be imported by most countries. 78 countries impose tariffs on soap and 23 impose tariffs on disinfectants. This is crazy in present circumstances.
The G20 should decide that all barriers to trade in goods, including soap, that the World Customs Organization (WCO) has said are critical to fighting the virus, should be removed straight away.
The EU should abolish its own export authorisation system for ventilators because it will slow down production and cost lives, especially in the poorest countries of the world.
The G20 also needs to consider the longer term economic effect of the shut down in global economic activity.
Big countries with big tax bases can protect themselves and their firms. Germany has introduced a big package of aid for German firms. But an Italian firm, producing the same product as a German firm, may not get the same aid as its German competitor, and this could destroy the level playing field of the EU Single Market.
No country derives as much benefit proportionately as Ireland does, from the existence of fully fair and open EU Single Market. So Ireland should support EU coordination of all business supports to ensure that all firms, whether from big or small countries, can compete fairly.
The ECB has taken welcome steps to help Italy, and other heavily indebted countries, that have been hit by the virus, to borrow at reasonable interest rates. But that simply adds to their debts.
Collective EU action, financed by collective EU borrowing, in support of particular health related spending should be undertaken. At the moment, the EU can neither raise taxes nor borrow, and that means it is unable to cope with crises like this one.
- the immediate elimination of all tariffs and restriction on the export or import of good identified by the WCO as vital to fighting Covid 19;
- a mutual assistance programme to help countries with the greatest shortage of equipment and intensive care beds;
- the exemption of medical staff, who have been tested, from immigration restrictions to allow them go where they are most needed.
John Bruton is former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland and EU Ambassador to the United States.