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New WTO Chief Says Success in Negotiations Crucial for Organization’s Future

Thursday, September 12, 2013
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

New World Trade Organization Director-General Robert Azevedo used his inaugural address this week to stress the importance of reaching an agreement on trade liberalizing measures at a WTO ministerial meeting in Bali this December. That agreement is intended to cover trade facilitation, agriculture and development, and there is growing concern that WTO members may not be able to resolve outstanding differences on those issues over the next three months.

The multilateral trading system remains the best defense against protectionism and the strongest force for growth, recovery and development, Azevedo said, but “it is clear that the system is in trouble” and “we must be honest about the problems we face,” particularly the struggle to successfully conclude the Doha Round negotiations. “The perception in the world is that we have forgotten how to negotiate,” he said, and “our failure to address this paralysis casts a shadow” over all the other functions the WTO serves that are “extremely important to the world even though the world doesn’t know it.” These include monitoring trade agreements and a dispute settlement system that “is under heavy demand.”

It is therefore essential, Azevedo continued, to “send a clear and unequivocal message to the world that the WTO can deliver multilateral trade deals” by successfully concluding an agreement at the Bali ministerial. Failure to do so “would strengthen current negative perceptions, setting us back in all areas of our work.” The world “will not wait for the WTO indefinitely,” he warned, and if there is no agreement this December the world “will move on with choices that will not be as inclusive or efficient as the deals negotiated within these walls.” On the other hand, success in Bali would “give us back the confidence that we are on the right track” and provide some momentum toward “delivering on Doha,” which “has to be a part of any future agenda.”

Azevedo said he will be as active and inclusive as possible in the effort to reach an agreement, pledging to “roll up my sleeves” and “be by your side at the table.” He plans to begin this week “a rolling set of meetings” with WTO ambassadors in a variety of formats and configurations to provide “the opportunity for everyone's voice to be heard across all these issues.” He also expressed a desire to start getting senior political officials more involved to overcome impasses and narrow gaps.

But success will ultimately be determined by WTO members themselves, Azevedo said, and to achieve that success they will have to be flexible. “As trade negotiators we are always tempted to the last drop of blood,” he said, “but that cannot be the case here — we must all be ready to live with some compromises.” He exhorted members to “always remember the consequences of failure,” which would include “second best solutions [that] leave many of the big challenges unaddressed.” The multilateral trading system “can be the preeminent force” in lifting people out of poverty, improving living standards and helping to put the global economy back on track,” Azevedo concluded, and the Bali ministerial represents “a unique opportunity to restore the WTO to its proper place at the heart of this system.”

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