Negotiate, or face the consequences

Roberto Azevedo | Updated on August 01, 2014 Published on August 01, 2014

Azevedo’s appeal Consensus is the way forward RAMESH SHARMA

The collapse of the Bali agreement puts the future of world trade at risk, says the WTO’s director-general

With the deadline just a matter of moments away, I don't have anything in my hands that makes me believe that we can successfully reach consensus on item 2 of the agenda of the general council. My understanding is that the remaining gaps are unbridgeable with the time that we have.

On the one side we have the firm conviction that the decisions that ministers reached in Bali cannot be changed or amended in any way — and that those decisions have to be fully respected. And on the other side of the debate we have some who believe that those decisions leave unresolved concerns that need to be addressed in ways that, in the view of others, change the balance of what was agreed in Bali.

These are the two sides. We have not been able to find a solution that would allow us to bridge that gap. We tried everything we could. But it has not proved possible. The fact we do not have a conclusion means that we are entering a new phase in our work — a phase which strikes me as being full of uncertainties. My sense is that this is not just another delay which can be ignored or accommodated into a new timetable — this will have consequences.

Changed circumstances

What this means for the WTO will be in the hands of the members. When everyone is back in Geneva (after the summer break), I will be asking the chairs of the negotiating groups and the regular bodies to consult with members on what can be done in these changed circumstances.

I want to stress the importance of each of the three pillars of the WTO: disputes, monitoring and negotiations — not to mention our work on technical assistance and aid-for-trade.

We saw the importance of our work during the financial crisis when, unlike with previous crises, there was no surge in protectionism. Having the rules in place and adherence closely monitored, with the dispute settlement mechanism there to back them up, helped to keep protectionism in check during a dangerous period for the global economy.

The value of those pillars was plain to see — and they performed very well. But, when I took office last September, I was clear that I had real concerns for the future of the negotiating pillar. Bali was a very important moment in reviving and revitalising the negotiating function. But, just seven months later, once again I am very, very concerned.

My view has always been that the multilateral trading system is essential not just to support economic growth and development, but also to deal with other systemic, global issues of governance such as guarding against protectionism, responding to new challenges at the global level, and working to resolve not just specific disputes but larger, more fundamental imbalances.

In this way, since its creation in 1948, the multilateral system has been a powerful force for openness, cooperation and peace.

Small is vulnerable

But it is clear to me that all three pillars are needed for the system to function properly. And if the system fails to function properly then the smallest nations will be the biggest losers. The major economies will have other options open to them. But the smaller, more vulnerable economies may not. They're the ones with fewer options, who are at risk of being left behind. They're the ones that may no longer have a seat at the table.

My fear is that the smaller and more vulnerable an economy is, the more it will suffer. It would be tragic for those economies - and therefore for us all. So I hope you will all reflect on this to consider what the next steps might be.

I urge you to stress the importance of the situation we find ourselves in, and how significant the position you take in September will be. So please, take this time to reflect — and let's be ready to discuss the way forward on these issues when you return. The future of the multilateral trading system is in your hands.

This is an edited excerpt from a statement made by the World Trade Organisation’s director-general Roberto Azevêdo to the informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee which concluded its meeting shortly after midnight of July 31

Published on August 01, 2014
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