Dear Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Could you imagine a multilateral trading system that provides an effective and transparent basis for international cooperation; one that prevent disputes;  one that generates updated guidelines on a continuous basis; one that serves, directly the private sector and civil society as a whole?

Well, the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade is a good example of how the multilateral trading system can be managed. For this reason, I am extremely glad to welcome you to this Symposium. And I want to thank you for the recognition that your high-level attendance shows.

In my view, this Symposium comes at a very important juncture. This for three reasons.

1.First, while we are in a difficult time for both global trade and the world economy, we need to support the functioning of supply chains. 

We are grappling with multiple crises. There are simultaneous exogenous shocks hitting the world: security shocks and related uncertainty, supply chain disruptions — and energy and food price shocks. The world economy faces the prospects of slow and inflationary growth, and there are looming balance of payment and financial crises. World merchandise trade is losing momentum and, we expect, will only increase by 1.0% in 2023, down sharply from the previous estimate of 3.4%.

In the face of these challenges, one thing that we can do is ensure that our supply chains are effective and resilient, bringing goods to where they are needed.  The TBT Agreement, and the work of the TBT Committee, play a vital role in this regard.

Take just one example: during COVID-19, we saw how discrepancies between standards created problems. Different standards hindered access to masks and personal protective equipment (PPEs) and delayed the approval and supply of vaccines. Many countries have resorted to fast-tracking the processes for standards recognition, showing how essential this issue was for the fight against the pandemic. And, I should stress, this regulatory fast tacking was not at the expense of citizens’ health and well-being: to the contrary, it facilitated trade!

If we take a longer historical perspective, the TBT Committee has addressed more than 750 “trade concerns” since 1995 — imagine if all those had gone to formal (and lengthy and costly) dispute settlement! By way of these deliberations, disputes are prevented, and regulations are sometimes adapted before they go into force. Our latest analysis, which our team will elaborate on later, shows that the TBT Committee discusses specific trade concerns that cover an average of USD 2.4 trillion worth of imports per year. Clearly, this has major commercial importance.

2.Second, standards play a vital role in driving the double and structural transformation of the world economy toward digitalisation and decarbonization. These are not abstract trade matters, but very concrete discussions based on our Members' notifications.

Take climate change: TBT notifications represent 62% of all environment-related notifications by Members to the WTO — what's more, 30% of all WTO notifications on climate change measures are submitted to the TBT Committee. Of course not everything — fortunately! — comes to the floor of the Committee. But many do. Trade concerns related to climate change currently represent, on average 24%, of the measures put on the Committee’s agenda (average over the past three years). This means that we are discussing here issues at the core of the net-zero transition, like the carbon footprint of solar panels or batteries for electric vehicles. This is because a lack of common standards for measuring carbon emissions can undermine environmental credibility and create unnecessary barriers to trade. For instance, we have heard from stakeholders in heavy industry sectors, like iron and steel, that they need more transparency and coherence in carbon standards to support an accelerated low-carbon transition.

The digital economy is another area of growing importance. Here, Members have engaged in discussions on issues such as cybersecurity and even artificial intelligence. Trade taking place in our emerging digital economy will be dominated by “smart” products. These products are permanently interconnected and constantly being fed with data via the Internet, so they can learn and be ever-improving. Here, harmonized standards and regulations for ensuring interoperability (and safety!) are key for the “internet-of-things”. This new reality also opens new challenges. The TBT Committee, for instance, has discussed an increasing number of trade concerns regarding cybersecurity measures. The economic importance of such discussions is borne out by our projections that the average value of imports involved, per cybersecurity STC, is around USD 159 billion.

These are just a few examples. The gist of this second point is that cooperation through the WTO TBT Committee can help pinpoint these problems and find appropriate solutions that support trade and our global priorities.

3.Third, as our Members are about to engage in deep discussions about WTO reform, with a view to harvesting results at our MC 13, it can be a good idea to look at what works well in the system. In that regard, I want to emphasize three very appealing dimensions of the work of the TBT committee.

One is rule-making. In the TBT Committee, WTO Members develop “soft rules” such as guidance and recommendations through an inclusive and transparent process. Indeed, I understand you are working on important guidance regarding conformity assessment that is aimed at increasing trust in international trade. This is crucial: trust is the currency of trade. My point here is that this type of work is an ongoing deliverable and an important complement to the hard rules we have. It is, in a sense, a third pillar of work here at the WTO. It complements our work on negotiations and formal dispute settlement.

Second, transparency. We have developed a powerful digital platform (ePing) that has attracted the attention of many Members and the private sector. It is a joint effort internally (TBT and SPS) and externally (the ITC and UNDESA), and an example of what we at the WTO should be doing more: allowing WTO Members to use a global system to follow regulatory changes around the world that may have an effect on trade. I understand that some key Members (including the EU and the US) are transitioning their own national systems to ours because they consider ePing reliable, user-friendly and modern. Importantly, the private sector is engaged: over 40% of the 18,500-plus registrations to ePing are from the private sector. A new smartphone Application for ePing will help bring this information closer to people. This is a good example of how the WTO, using new technology, is staying abreast of the times and providing a good service to its Members.

Third, capacity building.  This very week we are hosting at the WTO an innovative Transparency Champions Programme to deepen the knowledge and skills of government officials from Africa. The programme is directed at officials who implement TBT transparency disciplines on a daily basis. I would like to welcome the first cohort of transparency champions, which I understand are in the room with us today.

So, this is the story behind the rather scary “TBT” acronym: making value chains more efficient, supporting the transitions toward the future model of trade, and acting as a laboratory for the reform of the wider multilateral trading system.

Yet, one question remains unresolved here, and this is: how much do we know about the benefits of this work? Can we try to measure them both in quality and quantity? Today we are going to start tackling this question. You will be looking at some figures and data on this.

This is extremely important because too much regulation — or regulation that is too divergent — will hinder our ability to address problems of the global commons, as we took the lesson from the COVID crisis. It is therefore important to put a figure, if possible, on the value of trade that is affected by these discussions. We'll hear more about this just after the opening session.

All these topics are on the agenda for this symposium so this will be an interesting morning, I am sure.

Thank you for your attention.




Problems viewing this page? If so, please contact [email protected] giving details of the operating system and web browser you are using.