SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning. I am very glad to be in Bulgaria and to join you today at the National Assembly. Thank you for your kind invitation.
I am especially pleased to be here during the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
This is an important moment for the country and of course, for the Bulgarian people.
It recognizes the decision taken by Bulgaria to undertake important reforms to integrate the country into Europe — culminating in your EU accession in 2007 — and also into the wider world.
Just yesterday I participated in a meeting with the EU trade ministers, chaired by Minister Emil Karanikolov.
The message to the wider global community is clear: Bulgaria is open for business.
But of course, like in any economy, challenges persist. Promoting stability, transparency and prosperity is an ongoing effort. So it is welcome that the country is continuing a range of reforms to upgrade its infrastructure and create an enabling business environment.
Global integration is an important part of this strategy — and I believe that the WTO can be a very important partner here.
The WTO is the only organization dealing with trade rules on a global level. Our role is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly and as predictably as possible. We currently have 164 members, covering around 98% of world trade.
The organisation also works to ensure that trade differences do not spiral into larger conflicts. If there are disagreements, then we have a renowned dispute settlement mechanism to ensure that they can be solved in a transparent and impartial way.
All this helps to maintain the stability and the rule of law in global economic relations. In turn, these ingredients help countries to use trade as a tool to boost growth, development and job creation.
Bulgaria acceded to the WTO in 1996, after a long process of economic reform.
The current Bulgarian Ambassador to the WTO, Atanas Paparizov, was the Minister of Trade and Foreign Economic Cooperation, leading the work towards Bulgaria's WTO membership. He rightly described the country's successful accession as "a major achievement".
And I think that this rules-based system has served Bulgaria well.
Trade is an important economic driver here. Between 1996 and 2016, Bulgaria's goods exports have grown fivefold. Today, 4 out of every 10 jobs in Bulgaria are linked to exports.
We must ensure that trade continues to deliver for Bulgaria, and that it helps you continue on your track to greater integration.
This is especially important in the current economic outlook.
After years of sluggish growth, trade expansion is actually picking up around the world. It is growing at a sustained pace that we have not seen since the global financial crisis.
Global trade growth last year was around 3.5% and early indications for 2018 are positive. Our latest World Trade Outlook Indicator shows that merchandise trade volume, export orders and air and sea freight traffic are all above trend, suggesting that first quarter trade growth should continue apace.
And despite much speculation, we are not seeing a rise in protectionism.
Since the crisis of 2008 governments have actually held relatively firm in resisting the temptation to put protectionist measures in place. In fact, over this period, less than 5% of global imports were affected by trade restrictions.
But, of course, we must remain cautious and watchful that such measures are not introduced. These actions could very quickly undermine future trade growth, and therefore harm economic growth, development and job creation.
So we need to keep strengthening global trade and the multilateral trading system. We must ensure that the system is robust, and that it is responsive to its members' needs and priorities.
An important part of this work is delivering new reforms - and we have shown that the WTO can produce meaningful results here.
At our Ministerial Conferences in Bali in 2013 and Nairobi in 2015, WTO members delivered some of the biggest trade reforms in a generation, including:
- the Trade Facilitation Agreement,
- the decision to abolish agricultural export subsidies, and
- the elimination of tariffs on a wide range of new generation Information Technology products.
These measures will have a major economic impact. For example, implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement alone could cut trade costs in Bulgaria by between 12.2 and 13.9 per cent.
I would like to thank Bulgaria and the EU for the strong support in achieving these results.
We held our latest ministerial in Buenos Aires in December last year. Unlike the previous two we didn't manage to deliver final, substantive agreements.
This was disappointing. But it would be unrealistic to expect meaningful agreements every two years. Besides, more importantly, progress was made.
On fisheries subsidies for example, members committed to secure a deal that delivers on Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 by the end of 2019.
Significantly, members also committed to continuing negotiations on all issues, including where progress has eluded us since the launch of the Doha Round. And there was also a huge show of political support for the organisation. So we will keep working, and I will be pushing members to find fresh perspectives which may help us advance this work.
While it is true that no great leaps forward were taken in Buenos Aires, on some issues there was a real outbreak of dynamism.
A group of 71 WTO members launched work on e-commerce that they hope will prepare the ground for future negotiations. Those members account for around 77% of global trade.
In addition, a group of 70 members launched work on investment facilitation. Those members account for around 66% of global inward FDI.
A group of 87 members launched work on reducing obstacles which prevent micro, small and medium enterprises from trading.
And 118 WTO members and observers agreed to take action on trade and women's economic empowerment.
Bulgaria, as a member of the EU, is part of all these initiatives.
And it is very interesting to look at the make-up of these new groups. They do not represent a north-south divide. Instead, they encompass developed, developing and least-developed countries, big and small, and they will remain open for all members to join.
Moreover, these are all issues of pressing economic importance for members — including for Bulgaria.
Work on e-commerce and investment facilitation could help boost Bulgaria's technology sector, which contributes 3.6 per cent to the country's GDP and is a major employer of young people.
Small businesses in Bulgaria provide more than three-quarters of employment. If we can help more companies like this to trade, it could have a positive spill-over to several sectors of the economy.
There are some interesting opportunities here. However, I want to stress that this is very recent and work in progress. At this stage these are just discussions. We need to see how these initiatives develop.
I have no doubt that Bulgaria's voice — together with the EU — will be very important to advance these conversations.
In fact, I think that Bulgaria can offer an interesting perspective here.
I heard that there is a saying in Bulgarian, which translates roughly as “together, a united group can lift a mountain".
This can inspire us to meet the challenges and opportunities that we face today.
So let's keep working together to lift and remove the obstacles to trade, to ensure that it can continue to spark growth, development and job creation in Bulgaria, and around the world.