Remarks by DG Azevêdo

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to join you this afternoon.

I hear that you have had a very interesting and engaging debate over the course of the day.  

I would like to thank our friends at the IDEAS Centre and the ICTSD for organizing this event.

And I would like to thank the T20, and its partners, for spearheading this initiative namely: the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; the Shanghai Institute for International Studies; and the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

I think that this meeting today is very welcome, especially at this juncture.

Trade growth has been hit hard by low global demand as developed countries come slowly out of recession and emerging economies mature.

So we need to take action to get trade moving, to take down barriers and strike new agreements.

Much of the focus in recent years has been on bilateral and regional trade initiatives — such as TPP or TTIP. I know that the relationship between these initiatives and the multilateral system has been on your agenda today.

As you know, these kinds of agreement have long coexisted with the WTO framework. In my view, they are very positive and can deliver significant economic gains.

However, clearly a patchwork of overlapping trade regulations and standards is less efficient than global rules.

There’s no doubt that the private sector has a clear preference for action at the multilateral level, when it can be achieved.

And some topics like domestic support in agriculture or fisheries subsidies can only be properly or fully tackled at a global level.

So we need to ensure that trade is working well at all levels, and make as full a contribution as we can.

Over the last two and a half years the WTO has started to deliver new trade agreements, which are bringing significant results.

In 2013, at our Ministerial Conference in Bali, WTO members delivered the Trade Facilitation Agreement. 

It was the first major global trade deal in 20 years.

Then in 2015, at our Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, members agreed to abolish export subsidies in agriculture.

This was the biggest reform in global agriculture trade for 20 years.

Also in Nairobi, members struck a deal to expand the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement.

This was the WTO’s first tariff-cutting deal in 19 years.

Members have also taken important decisions to help least-developed countries integrate into trading flows — including on cotton.

In addition, members have agreed to find a permanent solution on public stockholding for food security purposes — and to develop a Special Safeguard Mechanism, which would help deal with import surges of food products that can harm domestic production.

These are very important outcomes for the global economy. And they send an important signal about the health of the trading system itself.

After a prolonged period where little progress was made in global trade talks, these results are making people sit up and take notice.

There has been a resurgence of interest in our work.

We are seeing this at the G20. At the last two meetings of the G20 leaders, there have been very animated discussions on trade.

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to China’s leadership in the G20. 

I think that the emphasis put on trade and investment by the Chinese Presidency reflects the country’s strong commitment to the multilateral trading system. This is also clear here in Geneva, where the Chinese mission is an active and constructive participant across the work of the WTO.

We are also seeing renewed interest in other global fora.

At Davos this year, there was a step change in the positivity and engagement towards our work. The same was true at the APEC trade ministers’ meeting last month and at the OECD ministerial council last week.

This is very positive. We have to build on this momentum to reenergize our work at the WTO.

And looking ahead, I think we have two major tasks before us.

First, we need to implement what we have already agreed and follow-up on the commitments made.

Second, we must keep agreeing new trade deals.

WTO members are currently discussing the way forward in our negotiating work.

As that discussion shapes up, I think it is important to seek different views that can enrich the debate and help spark new ideas.

It was in that spirit that we have started this series of dialogues with stakeholders, where they can highlight issues they find important.

As you know, just last week we held the first of these Trade Dialogues, at the request of the private sector.

Some 60 business leaders were there — from small and big companies, from developed and developing countries and from a range of sectors. They discussed the challenges they face in conducting trade operations and how the WTO can help in dealing with them.

Overall, there were some very interesting exchanges — and I will come back to this in a moment.

Of course, it will be up to members to decide how to move forward.  But I think that the level of debate was very strong and it has provided valuable food for thought.

The B20 — the G20’s business coalition — played a key role in that meeting. Therefore, it is very encouraging to see the involvement of the T20 on this front as well.

Think-tanks can play an important role in trade discussions. Therefore, I am especially happy that you have had the chance to continue that conversation today, particularly when we are having this open debate about our future work. 

And there is no doubt that there is a lot of work to do.

We now know, after the successful breakthroughs in both Bali and Nairobi, that we can deliver at the WTO. So the big question now is: what’s next?

It is clear that all WTO members want to deliver on the Doha negotiating issues, such as domestic subsidies in agriculture, and improved market access for agricultural produce, industrial goods and services.

However, they do not agree on how to tackle them.

We have tried many approaches over the past couple of years, but with little progress.  So we must keep trying.

In addition, some members would like to start discussing other issues as well.

A range of ideas have been suggested — such as steps to support small and medium sized-enterprises, e-commerce, investment facilitation, private standards, to name just a few.

In these areas, members have not yet gone into detail on what they would like to discuss under those broad headings. In each case, we need a much greater degree of specificity than we have at present.

However, it is encouraging that we have been getting many suggestions on how to take this forward.

At the Trade Dialogues event with business, a wide range of ideas were put forward. They spent a lot of time on e-commerce, investment facilitation and MSMEs — helping to provide some of the clarity and detail which is currently missing from the debate.

They also raised a number of other issues, including:

  • the need to harmonize regulations across bilateral and regional trade deals
  • and they raised the need to be flexible in the architecture of potential deals. While they recognized that multilateral deals are the ideal outcome, they also looked at the possibility of delivering more plurilateral and sectoral agreements within the WTO.

The Trade Facilitation Agreement is often cited as a model here — because it is a multilateral deal which allows a high degree of flexibility in its implementation. Moreover, it provides for practical support and technical assistance where needed. So this is an interesting model which may inspire members in the future. 

I know that many of these points have been raised in your discussions today. I understand that, in addition, there has been a focus on:

  • the need for pragmatism, and to deliver where we can
  • the need to advance discussions on services
  • the importance of digital trade, or e-commerce, and digital platforms for SMEs
  • and the importance of delivering on the sustainable development goals — although, by the way, I’m pleased to say that the decision in Nairobi to abolish agriculture export subsidies already delivered on a key target of the second SDG!

Of course, at this stage I have only heard a quick briefing on your discussions today. I look forward to reading a more detailed account of the ideas raised in due course.

If we want to transition from a period of reflection towards taking concrete actions then there is a lot to be done. This is particularly true as we look ahead to the next ministerial conference.

Your contributions will be very welcome in helping members look at possible next steps.

Academics, policymakers, and think-tanks have long been valuable partners of the WTO. And I am glad to have strengthened that partnership today. 

I hope to keep building on this dialogue so we can deliver new deals — now and in the years ahead.

Thank you.



> Statement by Roberto Azevêdo


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