19 February 2003

DDG Abbott sees broad support for trade facilitation goals

Deputy Director-General Roderick Abbott, in a brief speech at the launching of the World Trade Point Federation website in Geneva on 19 February 2003, noted broad international support for simplifying trade transactions, especially for developing country exporters. He said there was “a reasonably good chance” that WTO members would move forward on trade facilitation at the Cancún Ministerial Conference.

The speech

Very pleased to be with you today and to speak on behalf of the WTO.

Indeed, I have the very strong impression that all of us here today are In a certain sense “friends of trade facilitation” and the various organisations that we represent are strongly in favour of the approach, even if we pursue it in our different ways.  We all want to simplify trade transactions, to reduce the complexity that arises when import procedures are different in one country from another, to lower transaction costs, and to assist especially exporters from developing countries to be able to find their way through the maze of government regulations as painlessly as possible.

I would like to tell you briefly what the WTO is doing in this field. Most of you will know that a new multilateral trade negotiation was launched last year in Doha, and that one of its principal elements is to give a much stronger Development dimension to our normal work of trade liberalisation and rule-making.  Going on from that, you may also know that in Doha a certain number of specific negotiating mandates were agreed (agriculture, other market access, trade in services to name the main ones) and that these are being actively pursued with a view to mid-term review in Cancun next September.

You may also be aware that a number of other issues were extensively debated in Doha without, at that moment, having a specific mandate agreed.  Trade facilitation is one of these issues, together with matters relating to Investment and to Competition policy.  However, while some of these matters remain highly controversial among WTO members, I believe it can be said that members are all broadly supportive of the general aims of the trade facilitation agenda.  There is therefore a reasonably good chance that in Cancun we can move forward to agree upon a negotiating mandate, provided of course that the game of linkages (one sector being made conditional on progress or agreement in another) does not raise external obstacles to the pursuit of what are clearly common objectives.

This may appear to be rather an optimistic view, and to go further on the basis of this assessment is of course a risky business.  Words and phrases such as 'imminent gridlock',  'missed deadlines', negative conditionality (“I am not going to show my negotiating hand until you have shown me yours”) are becoming common currency.  But let me mention one idea, since it runs in parallel to the Trade Point philosophy.

In the discussions on trade facilitation members are increasingly interested in the idea that enquiry points or trade desks would be established within each member's administration, to assist in the implementation of any rules to be agreed.  These would serve, much as do the existing ones in the area of TBT or SPS, as a central point to which governments and traders could address enquiries and seek information about the various import procedures covered by the agreement.  As such they would be a useful tool to ensure that the rules are indeed satisfactorily implemented.

We see this — if in fact it were to come about — as in no sense a rival concept to Trade Points.  Rather, it is a case of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”: the WTO members will no doubt be happy to build on the experience that their governments have already gained through the Trade Point system, in enhancing transparency as well providing information with the aim of improving access to markets.  But these are truly complementary concepts: the present WTO enquiry points are narrowly related to a specific agreement and to its requirements, whereas Trade Points operate over a wider range of general information about policy requirements and availability of technologies to help bring products to markets.