World Trade WT/MIN(96)/ST/61
11 December 1996
MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE Original: French
Singapore, 9-13 December 1996
Minister of Finance and Foreign Trade
The fact that the first Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization is being held in this dynamic city symbolizes and confirms the success of Singapore's efforts to become integrated in global trade.
There can be little doubt that you all share my awareness of the importance of this first Ministerial Conference after the end of the Uruguay Round negotiations and the establishment of the new World Trade Organization.
Speaking for the European Union, the Presidency and the Commission have already had an opportunity to explain the positions we have adopted on the various items on the agenda and will have further opportunities to do so. As representative of a country that is the 10th largest contributor to the WTO's budget, I shall restrict myself to a few remarks on matters that I consider important for the WTO's future.
I am firmly convinced that if trade liberalization is to be truly effective and fulfil its goal of increasing the prosperity of all countries and raising their peoples' standards of living, there must be an open, universal and non-discriminatory system that can only be assured in the long term by an organization such as the WTO.
Many studies, including some by the WTO itself, draw attention to the expansion of trade in recent years and its major contribution to the growth of the world economy.
Trade liberalization must continue.
Nevertheless, although the process of economic globalization underpinning the WTO's work holds out great promise, we have to recognize that it is also a cause of anxiety to all those who do not feel equipped to meet the challenges it involves.
As political leaders, we must take these concerns into account and ensure that liberalization does not take place without the consent and support of the people concerned.
My colleagues present here know or remember the difficulties that had to be overcome before concluding the negotiations in Marrakesh in 1994. It was no easy matter to achieve a satisfactory balance among the concessions and expectations on all sides.
It would therefore be unwise to try to expand the structure too hastily. We would do better to strengthen the elements already in place before attempting to add on any new ones.
It must be emphasized that the WTO's primary task is to ensure that the agreements reached are respected in their entirety.
The balance of rights and obligations under the Uruguay Round must not be called into question.
Belgium, therefore, does not support the early initiation of new negotiations.
There must also be agreement that the WTO should ensure that the liberalization process is progressive, without artificial time-limits and accompanied by a strengthening of trade rules and disciplines.
The WTO must also make it absolutely clear that one of its foremost priorities is the integration of the least-developed countries in international trade: this is something to which my country attaches great importance.
Lastly, and above all, the WTO, strengthened as a result of this Conference, must clearly emphasize that trade is not an end in itself but, to cite the words of the preamble to the Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, a means of "raising standards of living" and "ensuring full employment".
The people of Belgium, through their Parliament, which made this a condition for ratification of the Uruguay Round Agreements, wish to see the WTO make an active contribution to the promotion of the basic labour standards enshrined in international law, in close collaboration with the International Labour Organization and without jeopardizing the comparative advantages of developing countries.
The Belgian Government naturally regrets that Mr. Hansenne, Director-General of the ILO, was not invited to our meeting. We would not understand it if the WTO refused to establish some form of cooperation with the International Labour Organization in order progressively to ensure that these basic standards are respected.
This action will take time (the countries concerned must be given a reasonable amount of time to adapt their labour practices and conditions) and must be set within a multilateral framework (there should be no unilateral measures). It must take the form of incentives rather than sanctions and be accompanied by increased assistance to the least-developed countries.
My Government well understands the reticence of several of our emerging and developing country partners to discuss these issues in the WTO. I am certainly not unresponsive to some of their arguments, particularly their feeling that some "social" statements are in fact inspired by protectionist inclinations. This is not our case, however, and I am convinced that better mutual understanding of our values and concepts in this area can only come from multilateral discussion that takes due account of the interests, characteristics and problems of all concerned.
These concerns can be met in a number of ways, but it is my view that the creation of satisfactory mechanisms for cooperation between the WTO and the ILO would undoubtedly be a positive step.
By discussing these issues together, we will take an important step forward along the path towards our shared objective, namely, to improve the well-being of our peoples.