DEPUTY DIRECTOR-GENERAL ALAN WM. WOLFF

His remarks are below.

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Virtual meeting of the Informal Group of Acceding Governments (IGAG) at the level of Heads of Delegation

Ambassador Yury Ambrazevich (Belarus),
Heads of Delegation of acceding governments,
Chief Negotiators joining from your capitals,
Good morning.

I am very pleased to be with you and thank you for this invitation.

It has been just over one year since I last addressed this Group.  That the world has dramatically changed since then is an understatement.  In recent memory, the scale, magnitude and pace of changes have been unparalleled.  The world has lost and is still losing precious lives in thousands, and millions have been infected by the virus whose nature is yet to be fully known. The result of the pandemic and the measures taken to fight it has to cause a sharp decline in the world economy.  

In the face of a common challenge, there is a need to demonstrate resilience and creativity and have empathy.  COVID-19 should generate a strong sense of interconnectedness among nations, and we must demonstrate that there is great potential for collective action among nations.

Today, I would like to focus my remarks on two broad aspects: (i) COVID-19, trade integration and accessions; and (ii) the values of the multilateral trading system: Past, Present and Future.  And of course, I will be happy to try to answer any questions that you may have with respect to current events from the WTO’s perspective and the outlook for the future.

COVID-19, Trade Integration and Accessions

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global concern and requires an effective global response — a multilateral response.  Being part of the multilateral trading system is essential now more than ever. To fail to meet the challenges of the pandemic is not a viable option. Our common objective is that, by participating in the multilateral trading system, Members will be better placed in dealing with and recovering from the ongoing health and economic crisis.

Countries throughout the world are now focusing on examining the impact of COVID-19 on public health as well as on national and global economy. While governments understandably initially largely looked inward, focussing on domestic effects, there is strong sentiment among many WTO Members that it is vitally important to cooperate internationally, as they prepare for the recovery phase from a huge economic contraction. 

It is essential for acceding governments to be part of the multilateral response to the pandemic crisis.

While governments have had varied responses to this crisis, it is encouraging to see the trade integration agenda has not been put aside during the pandemic.  EU Member States have given a green light to two small Balkan countries — North Macedonia and Albania — to open EU accession negotiations.  In Africa, there are increasing calls for the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as the best stimulus for post-COVID economic recovery, although making it operational, initially scheduled for July 2020, has been delayed.  At the WTO, we are proceeding with the accessions agenda despite the crisis.

Many acceding governments remain active individually, and collectively including through this Group.(1)  I have been encouraged by acceding governments' pro-active engagement with key Members, Working Party Chairpersons and the Secretariat to advance their respective accession processes despite the challenges faced by all during the twin health and economic emergencies of the pandemic.  In particular, I welcome concrete progress made by some governments, especially those in Eurasia and several LDCs, in submitting accession documentation and preparing for their respective Working Party meetings. 

Notably:

  • Belarus and Uzbekistan, had submitted all documentation before the lockdown.  Their representatives have repeatedly expressed their desire to hold their meetings, including through virtual platform, as soon as possible.
  • Somalia submitted its Memorandum of Foreign Trade Regime (MFTR) in late April, and I am in the process of securing a Chairperson for the Working Party.
  • Timor-Leste submitted in mid-May the first set of replies to Member's questions on its MFTR, as well as its Legislative Action Plan together with accompanying legislation, paving the way for holding the first Working Party meeting, it is hoped, in July.
  • With respect to Azerbaijan and Comoros, the Secretariat is in touch with the technical teams with a view to finalising the draft Reports which will serve as the basis for their respective Working Party meetings.
  • Finally, we have received a new application for observer status from Turkmenistan, which we expect to be considered by WTO Members at the next regular meeting of the General Council, scheduled for 22 and 23 July. 
    • This application from Turkmenistan is historic, as this represents the last of the fifteen former Soviet republics to seek to establish a formal relationship with the WTO, which started immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. 
    • This application, together with the application from Curaçao whose Working Party was established just before the lockdown, demonstrates a vote of confidence for the multilateral trading system despite prevailing challenges.        

I know other acceding governments are working equally hard.  Your commitment to the multilateral trading system and your dedication to the accession process bring a lot of energy to the WTO during this challenging period.    

Now that the WTO building will be opened for meetings as of 15 June, with various health‑related rules in place, I look forward to a resumption of accession working party meetings.

I also welcome the contributions by acceding governments to the notification exercise of trade‑related measures(2), as well as your recent participation at the Special Meeting of the General Council on COVID-19.(3)  You are exercising your rights as observers and your voice is being heard.

The value of the WTO: Past, Present and Future 

When l addressed the Group last year, I said: “These are exciting times.  Your governments should not miss the chance to play a part in shaping the multilateral trading system.”  This is truer today than ever.   

In a recent statement, I enumerated 16 principles and values that have governed or are expected to govern the multilateral trading system. I started with peace, which is a cause very close to the heart for many of acceding governments.  This is central to the Trade for Peace initiative.  Then, I listed stability (certainty), the rule of law, well-being, equality, non-discrimination, sovereignty, universality, development, transparency, sustainability, market forces, convergence, reciprocity, international cooperation and morality. The list was actually not complete, because the WTO is also about balance, between rights and obligations, between liberalization and the availability of trade remedies.

No one appreciates the values and the value of the WTO better than those seeking to join the system. The fact that you are working to join the system should give you a greater appreciation of these principles.  This is one reason why you are an indispensable part of the future, in your upholding of the multilateral trading system.    

How do we move from the present, which is full of challenges and uncertainties, to the future?  Let me share some thoughts on what acceding governments could do to help achieve the WTO 2.0.  

  • First, continue to advance the accession negotiations.  During the last 25 years, WTO accessions have consistently strengthened the multilateral trading system by expanding the reach of WTO Agreements to over 98% of world trade and often deepening and updating existing rules and disciplines.  WTO accessions are in the vanguard of WTO Reform as accession negotiations have often stimulated rules-making discussions at the multilateral level, as evident in the areas of trade facilitation, disciplines on TRQs, and export subsidies.
  • Second, go digital in the accession process.  The pandemic has disrupted travel and is likely to cause a reconsideration of the need for as many face-to-face encounters, whether for Working Party meetings, bilateral market access negotiations, training, or Secretariat and Working Party Chair's visits to acceding governments.  The silver lining of the past few months of lockdown is the discovery of virtual platforms, which can not only be cost efficient, but can be very effective in reaching out to different stakeholders, whether domestic or international.  Virtual platforms can increase transparency and inclusiveness, enhancing the accession process.  This virtual meeting is a good demonstration of such possibilities. 
    • The Accessions Division has a plan to organize a virtual “Accessions Week” from 29 June to 3 July, which will be open to the broader accession community.  This week-long event will comprise ten (10) webinars of 90-minutes, combining training on accession negotiations; roundtables with Chief Negotiators, Working Party Chairpersons and partners; and sessions focused on regions, including Eurasia, Africa/LDCs, and Arab regions.  We look forward to continuing virtual engagements.
  • Third, continue contributing to the WTO's transparency exercise, which is one of the key pillars of the WTO, by sharing trade-related measures — whether trade restricting or liberalising — with WTO membership.  Indeed, the webpage dedicated to the listing of these trade measures does not differentiate between Members and Observers.  
  • Fourth, consider participating in the Joint Initiatives on E‑Commerce, MSMEs, and Investment Facilitation. I know that some acceding governments are already doing so.  While the Joint Initiatives are currently in plurilateral format, they are open, including to acceding governments.
  • Fifth, consider co-sponsoring Members' proposals and statements on COVID-19 and world trade.  These are currently (i) the statement on open and predicable trade in agriculture and food products (led by Canada); (ii) the statement on COVID-19 and the Multilateral Trading System by Ministers responsible for the WTO (led by Switzerland); (iii) the statement on highlighting the importance of MSMEs; (iv) the declaration on trade in essential goods for combating the COVID-19 pandemic (by New Zealand and Singapore), and a statement aimed at a number of concrete actions to deal with this pandemic (by Korea). 
  • Sixth, support the Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) which Kazakhstan has offered to host in June 2021 in Nur‑Sultan.  The final decision is yet to be made as to time and venue.  The subject will be taken up at the July General Council.  Kazakhstan was recently one of you, as a recently acceded WTO Member in 2015 and has shown leadership in making contributions to the system which it spent nearly 20 years to join.  MC12 provides a historic chance to prove that the Organization can deliver for the growing needs of its Members, on a range of topics, including fisheries subsidies disciplines. 

This is a time of transition to a new Director General.  I believe that there will be a strong field of candidates for the position.  It is reassuring to see the willingness of eminent and talented individuals to take on this task. 

On Friday, I participated in a legislative inquiry of the International Trade Committee of the British House of Commons about COVID-19 and the Multilateral Trading System.  There was strong interest and support from the Members of that Committee in and for the future of the WTO. Tomorrow I will be interviewed for the Delphi Economic Forum, from Delphi, Greece.  Here again, there is strong interest in the WTO and world trade.  One thing that I will suggest tomorrow is that a substantive audit of the WTO should be conducted in connection with this transition to determine what changes need to be made as part of WTO reform, and what needs to be retained and strengthened.

WTO reform is a subject of concern to all of us.  One idea that I have discussed with various groups, is a proposal to equip the WTO Members and Secretariat with a separate policy planning function to anticipate future needs of the multilateral trading system.  Putting this capability in place would increase the preparedness of the multilateral trading system, making it more resilient, whether in times of crisis as we are now experiencing due to this pandemic, or to deal with the opportunities and stresses for the trading system created by new technologies.  

The testing of the WTO is far from over. There will always be challenges.  Acceding governments are a vital sign of the importance of the underlying values and principles of the multilateral trading system.  You give the system much hope for the future.

 


Notes

  1. The Accessions Division held meetings with the IGAG on 30 April and with the g7+ WTO Accessions Group on 20 May. Back to text
  2. Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Serbia. Back to text
  3. Bahamas, Belarus, Libya and Uzbekistan made interventions at the Specific GC meeting held on 15 May. Back to text

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