parPar Elvira Pollina, Andreas Rinke et Francesco Guarascio
(Reuters) – France and Germany have dropped negotiations over reform of the World Health Organization, frustrated by attempts by the United States to lead the negotiations, despite their decision to leave the WHO, said three officials at Reuters.
The move is a setback for President Donald Trump, as Washington, who holds the rotating presidency of the G7, had hoped to release a common roadmap for a radical 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 to say it was leaving the United Nations agency – which was created to improve health around the world – after Trump accused it for being too close to China and for having mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic.
The WHO has dismissed his accusations. European governments have also criticized 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 negotiations.
“No one wants to be dragged into a reform process and get a glimpse of a country that has just left the WHO,” said a senior EU official involved in the discussions.
The German and French health ministries confirmed to Reuters that the two countries were opposed to the United States leading the negotiations after announcing their intention to leave the organization.
A spokesperson for the Italian health ministry said work on the reform document was still ongoing, adding, however, that Italy’s position was in line with that of Paris and Berlin.
Asked about the position of France and Germany, a senior Trump administration official said: “All G7 members have explicitly supported the substance of WHO’s reform ideas. ”
“Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that Germany and France ultimately chose not to join the group in approving the road map,” he said.
A UK government spokesperson declined to comment on the latest developments, but added Britain supports the WHO and called for reform of the body “to ensure it remains flexible and responsive” .
The WHO reform talks began about four months ago. There have been nearly 20 teleconferences between health ministers of industrialized countries in the Group of Seven and dozens of meetings of diplomats and other officials.
A G7 deal, which also includes Japan and Canada, would facilitate talks at the G20 and the United Nations, where any changes would have to be agreed with China, Russia and other important non-G7 governments.
It is unclear whether a G7 summit in the United States, at which Trump hopes leaders approve the roadmap, will now go ahead in September as planned.
US officials have not said what reforms Washington wants. But a first reform roadmap proposed by Washington was seen by many of its allies as too critical, with a European official involved in the negotiations calling it “crude”.
Despite changes to the original text, Washington’s push remained unacceptable, mainly in Germany, sources familiar with the negotiations said.
FINANCING AND “POLITICAL MANAGEMENT”
In the weeks before the talks collapsed, negotiators had told Reuters positions were closing in as Washington softened its approach and EU negotiators began to see the reform process as a way to make the WHO more independent of political pressures.
European governments had also started making skeptical remarks about the WHO in public, with Germany’s health minister urging the WHO to hasten a review of its handling of COVID-19.
Privately, some Europeans have taken a tougher line, with some criticizing WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and what they see as politicized handling of the pandemic.
“Everyone has criticized Tedros,” a negotiator from a European G7 country told Reuters.
A German government source said: “We must… ensure in the future that WHO can respond in a neutral and fact-based manner to global health events. ”
But European governments want to make the WHO stronger, better funded and more independent, while the US withdrawal of funds is likely to weaken it – Washington is the biggest contributor, providing 15% of the budget.
Some Europeans see Trump’s criticism of the WHO as an attempt, in the run-up to the US election, to distract from his handling of COVID-19, and Berlin’s ties with Washington have been strained by his decision in July to withdraw thousands of American troops. of Germany.
WHO reform plans are unlikely to be shelved for good, especially if Trump is defeated in the November election. European governments want Washington to remain a WHO member and financial support, and they have shown interest in increasing their own funding for the organization.
(Reporting by Elvira Pollina in Milan, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Jeff Mason in Washington, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Marisa Taylor, Giselda Vagnoni, Guy Faulconbridge, Thomas Escritt and Tangi Salaun; Written by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; edited by Timothy Heritage)