Opening remarks by DG Azevêdo

Roberto Azevêdo’s speeches


Good afternoon everyone, and welcome.

I am pleased to be with you today, and to be launching this new WTO publication on RTAs and the multilateral trading system.

These agreements existed before the GATT and they continue to grow in number today. So this is a very old relationship, but it continues to evolve.

There are 267 RTAs notified to the WTO and currently in force.

And with the notification of an RTA between Japan and Mongolia earlier this year, all WTO members are now party to at least one RTA.

The publication we are launching today is a further step in improving our understanding of what RTAs are doing and also what we could do at the WTO.

The chapters were first presented at a seminar at the WTO in September 2014 and they have been developed since then, drawing on comments from members.

But the genesis of this publication was a decision taken by the WTO General Council in December 2006, almost 10 years ago, to establish a Transparency Mechanism for RTAs. This Mechanism has allowed the Secretariat to build up an impressive database of information on RTAs — not just how many RTAs are in force today but also the detail of their key provisions.

The information gathered has allowed us to carry out a more detailed analysis of many of these provisions and that is presented to you in this book today.

It covers a broad range of provisions, including: market access and rules of origin in goods, trade defence, trade facilitation, standards, services rules, intellectual property rights and dispute settlement.

A very important feature is that the book doesn’t just examine these provisions in selected RTAs, as others have done. It examines the provisions in all RTAs notified to the WTO. That's quite a formidable task, and I pay tribute to everyone involved.

It shows that in some areas RTAs are going further than multilateral rules and adding new layers of rules among the parties, while in others they tend not to change the existing WTO disciplines.

Interestingly, in the areas where RTAs are introducing new rules, there appear to be common approaches taken by members. We can see this, for example, in services rules, dispute settlement, and intellectual property rights.

This provides some reassurance to the recurring fear that RTAs represent a fragmentation of the global trading system.

This may be good news for exporters, in particular SMEs, which find themselves at a disadvantage when faced with a proliferation of different rules. But, of course, RTAs could do more to assist such exporters.

For instance, rules of origin, which often determine whether an exporter is able to use preferences in an RTA, have become more complex over the years.

One way in which this complexity could be reduced would be to allow cumulation among a larger group of countries. For example, the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean rules of origin allow cumulation among over 20 trading partners — counting the EU as one partner. In this way it allows traders to benefit from regional value chains.

Of course more can be done to promote coherence.

We have been building a record of success here in Geneva. After a long period when RTAs were at the forefront of the trade debate, I think we are starting to see a shift.

I attended my fourth G20 meeting as Director-General earlier this month, and the WTO was at the heart of the conversation in a way that I haven't seen before.

Achievements like the Trade Facilitation Agreement, the decision to eliminate agricultural export subsidies, and others, have clearly been noticed.

Both of these issues are also dealt with by RTAs, but it is clear that a multilateral agreement between 164 WTO members has a much bigger impact.

So we will continue our efforts at the multilateral level. And while we seek to improve coherence between different initiatives, I have no doubt that RTAs will continue to coexist with and reinforce the multilateral system in the future as they have always done in the past. 

In closing, I would like to pay tribute once again to all those who have been involved in the publication, especially the contributors who undertook the task of examining every single RTA notified to the WTO. Congratulations on a fantastic publication — as well as on your endurance!

Particular thanks go to Rohini who has been the driving force behind this project.

The book adds important elements to the literature on RTAs and I am sure you will find it to be an interesting and enlightening read.

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