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In a time of trade wars, free trade skepticism, tech rivalry, and multipolar disorder, the European Union (EU) cannot evade its responsibilities the last defender of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet, it raises the question of whether the EU has power to defend the WTO. The EU is a multilateralist-oriented power of global magnitude. Unlike the United States, the EU is openly defending the WTO in the current crisis created by continued refusal to appointment WTO Appellate Body members. Like the United States, the EU is concerned with the illegitimate trade practices of China. Yet, the EU uses diplomatic pressure on China within the rules of the WTO. The EU is actively trying to rescue the rule-based trade system. Yet, it cannot do so alone. It needs support, not just form other WTO members but also from within Europe itself. The current crisis is in part rooted in the inability of the WTO members to update the WTO rulebook. The focus will be on the potential clash between a more assertive EU on sustainability and the absence of updated WTO rules on sustainable trade issues. This may force the EU to confront a deep-rooted policy dilemma. The question is whether the EU should continue to refrain from using its market power to promote sustainable trade in respect of the WTO. As the EU is about to ratify several bilateral trade agreements of commercial, geo-economic, and indeed geo-political importance, such as the EU–Mercosur or EU–Vietnam agreements, the rule-orientation of the EU faces growing domestic opposition as well as external contestation. Furthermore, the EU is modernizing its trade defense weaponry, the antidumping instrument, and has recently declared its intent to impose unilateral climate-related trade policy measures, the carbon-adjustment tariff, in the future. Thus, an incident such as the burning of the Amazon forest may force the EU to take a tougher stance on sustainability at the risk of bringing the EU on a collision course with the WTO itself, its rules, process, and member states. Consequently, the complex setup of the EU as a trade power could make it difficult to ratify WTO-compatible trade agreements in the future.

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The World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement system is its judicial arm and enforcement mechanism, designed to assist members in resolving trade disputes that arise between them. Its design reflects a move toward greater legalization in trade governance under the multilateral trade regime. Compared with the dispute settlement system of its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO’s dispute settlement provided a more structured and formal process with clearly defined stages and more discipline in the timetable of the dispute so as to resolve trade disputes as efficiently as possible. Most important, the WTO’s dispute settlement provides for virtually automatic adoption of panel rulings: a respondent losing a case can block the adoption only if it can persuade all members of the WTO not to do so. The legal basis for the WTO’s dispute settlement system is the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU), which provides the principles and procedures by which members may bring their trade disputes to the multilateral trade regime for resolution. Overseeing the dispute settlement process is the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), which consists of all WTO members and meets regularly to receive and to adopt reports of disputes at their various stages of progress. How effective is the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism? Effectiveness can be conceptualized as success in attaining the objectives of the dispute settlement under the WTO in three areas: the efficiency of dispute settlement; inclusiveness of the dispute settlement process, especially as it concerns developing country participation; and compliance with legal obligations resulting from arbitration. The existing scholarship on this topic features key debates and frontiers for future research on firms and global production networks/value chains that have the potential to advance our state of knowledge concerning this “crown jewel” of the multilateral trade regime.