Germany and France quit WHO reform talks amid tension with Washington

Updated 08 Aug 2020

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The move is a setback for US President Donald Trump. — AP/File
The move is a setback for US President Donald Trump. — AP/File

PARIS: France and Germany have quit talks on reforming the World Health Organisation in frustration at attempts by the United States to lead the negotiations, despite its decision to leave the WHO, three officials said.

The move is a setback for President Donald Trump as Washington, which holds the rotating chair of the G7, had hoped to issue a common roadmap for a sweeping overhaul of the WHO in September, two months before the US presidential election.

The United States gave the WHO a year’s notice in July that it is leaving the UN agency — which was created to improve health globally — after Trump accused it of being too close to China and having mishandled the coronavirus pandemic.

The WHO has dismissed his accusations. European governments have also criticised the WHO but do not go as far as the United States in their criticism, and the decision by Paris and Berlin to leave the talks follows tensions over what they say are Washington’s attempts to dominate the negotiations.

“Nobody wants to be dragged into a reform process and getting an outline for it from a country which itself just left the WHO,” a senior European official involved in the talks said.

Asked to confirm the decision by Paris and Berlin, spokesmen for the government of G7 members Germany, France, Britain and Italy declined comment.

But France’s health ministry told Reuters: “The US should not take the lead in the WHO reform process after announcing their intention to leave the organisation.” Asked about the position of France and Germany, a senior Trump administration official said: “All members of the G7 explicitly supported the substance of the WHO reform ideas.” “Notw­ithstanding, it is regrettable that Germany and France ultimately chose not to join the group in endorsing the roadmap,” he said.

The talks on WHO reform began about four months ago. There have been nearly 20 teleconferences between health ministers from the Group of Seven industrialised nations, and dozens of meetings of diplomats and other officials.

A deal by the G7, which also includes Japan and Canada, would facilitate talks at the G20 and United Nations, where any changes would have to be agreed with China, Russia and other major governments not in the G7.

It is unclear whether a G7 summit in the United States, at which Trump hopes leaders will endorse the roadmap, will now go ahead in September as planned.

US officials have not said what reforms Washington has sought. But an initial reform roadmap proposed by Washington was seen by many of its allies as too critical, with one European official involved in the negotiations describing it as “rude”.

Despite changes to the original text, Washington’s push remained unacceptable, mainly to Germany, sources familiar with the negotiations said.

In the weeks before the collapse of the talks, negotiators had said positions were getting closer as Washington softened its approach and European negotiators started to see the reform process as a means to make the WHO more independent from political pressure.

European governments had also began to make sceptical remarks about the WHO in public, with Germany’s health minister urging the WHO to hasten a review of its handling of Covid-19.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2020