Following a hiatus of nearly two years, the WTO Government Procurement Committee has - at last - selected a new chair, enabling it to resume its work. On May 17, it selected Martin Zbinden from Switzerland as Its new leader. This post looks at the Committee’s selection process and its work that has been stalled.

After its last chair stepped down in July of 2021, the Committee was unable to meet because it could not reach a consensus on its next leader. In its December 2022 annual report (GPA/AR/5), the Committee detailed its efforts to select a new chair. It reported that in February 2021, the European Union (EU) and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) each submitted a nomination for the chair. A few months later, in May, the EU withdrew its candidate from the selection process. However, one party was not able to join the consensus on the remaining candidate. As a consequence, the Committee was leaderless, which meant that it could not meet, and its work languished.

In an effort to avoid a similar situation in the future, the Committee - also on May 17 - adopted rules of procedure for selecting a chairperson. Based on its recent experience, the most important provision may be the measures to be taken if the parties cannot reach a consensus on a new chairperson that prevents the Committee from fulfilling its obligation to meet at least once a year. In such a situation, the rules provide that it “may appoint, by consensus, an interim Chairperson from among the candidates, or alternatively invite the Party that provided the previous Chairperson, to temporarily facilitate the meetings of the Committee until such time as a Chairperson can be appointed.”

With the selection of Mr. Zbinden, the Committee can now move forward on its stalled agenda. One of the most important areas that needs the Committee’s attention is pending accessions to the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA), in particular the accession negotiations of North Macedonia, Brazil, and China. (China's negotiations are now in their 16th year.) The GPA has not added any new members since Australia joined in 2019. (Although the United Kingdom became a member in its own right in 2021 after it left the EU, that did not increase the GPA roster.) The GPA’s membership challenges are examined in the recently published book, The International Procurement System: Liberalization & Protectionism.

In addition to expansion of GPA membership, the Committee will also need to address a host of other issues, including its unfulfilled work programs and other actions mandated by the GPA 2012. For example, the parties are six years past the date set in the agreement for new negotiations to update and expand the GPA.

A particularly pressing issue is the role that government procurement could play in addressing climate change. The Committee established a work program to support the use of sustainable procurement practices in 2014, as mandated by the GPA 2012. The mandate requires the Committee to examine the objectives of sustainable procurement, how that concept is integrated into national and subnational procurement policies, and how it can be practiced consistently with the principle of ‘best value for money’ and international trade obligations. It also directed the Committee to prepare a report on best practices. Before its work was hindered by the absence of a chair, it had not released any report or recommendations on sustainable procurement. This issue should not be further delayed.

Under the guidance of Mr. Zbinder, the Committee can now advance its long-delayed agenda.

Jean Heilman Grier

May 24, 2023

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