SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to join you today to mark this important occasion as we congratulate the ICC on its centenary.

One hundred years of working to foster peace and prosperity.

One hundred years of championing cooperation around the world.

It is a remarkable story. The ICC was there at the birth of multilateralism and continues to work to strengthen it today.

As Director-General of the WTO, I want to say how much I appreciate the ICC's support.

In shaping global trade, it is essential that we hear the voices of all constituencies and all stakeholders. And so the business community could not be more important.

The ICC makes sure that the voice of business is heard in the trade debate. And in recent times, I think we have taken our partnership to a new level. We have joined forces on the Trade Dialogues initiative, the Small Business Champions initiative and many others – delivering real results.

I'll come back to this, but I want to stress that in my many years of experience working on trade and WTO issues, I can’t recall a time when business engagement has been greater. Nor can I recall a moment when this has been more important.

As we look ahead to a new century of multilateralism, we are beset by challenges. The role of business and the ICC in helping to meet these challenges and shape the path forward will be vital once again.

So let me say a few words about how all of this is playing out in the trading system.

You all know about the situation in global trade today.

Tensions are running high. In 2018, new restrictive measures were imposed on around 580 billion dollars of trade. That is over seven times the level of the year before. And this is hitting trade growth.

Just last week we published our quarterly World Trade Outlook Indicator, which gives an early guide to the trajectory of trade growth. It recorded a ten-year low.

Key trade measures on export orders, international air freight, agricultural raw materials, electronic components, and automobile production and sales, are all well below-trend. And this does not capture some of the more notable trade measures that have been announced in recent days.

One of the key ways that the trading system serves business is by providing certainty and stability. But the current situation is compromising this goal.

We are in a situation of huge uncertainty today. This weighs on investment and consumption.

If we were to let this situation escalate further, the economic impact could be quite damaging and long lasting. A global breakdown in trade cooperation would have an impact to rival the financial crisis.

At the WTO we are working urgently to reduce tensions. We are dealing with record numbers of disputes and working hard to help deal with members' concerns. Some also see reforming the WTO itself as a step towards resolving some of these issues. The G20 leaders have called for such reforms.

In considering our path forward, I think we need to see the bigger picture. It is important to acknowledge that today's tensions have not materialised out of thin air. They are bound up in issues of geopolitics, and they are fuelled by the sense of economic insecurity that many people have today.

Workers are being squeezed by the lingering effects of the 2008 crisis and the 4th industrial revolution which is transforming the labour market. Together these forces are fostering a heightened sense of fear and uncertainty about the future. This has helped to create an upsurge in anti-trade and, even more broadly, anti-foreign sentiment.

One important element here is the perception that trade is taking people's jobs and sending them overseas. In reality the key driving force behind job losses is innovation and higher productivity enabled by technology – not trade.

But, regardless of the causes, it's clear that people feel left behind by the pace of economic change. And they don't think that the existing institutional arrangements are properly equipped to protect them.

The modern economy is not destroying jobs overall – rather it is changing and replacing them. In fact, more jobs will be created than lost. The real issue here is the lack of skills to fill the new positions and the disruption that this causes in people's lives.

This requires action in domestic policy to help workers adapt. Governments are seeking to respond to this in their own way.

But no one is going to be helped by choking off trade – or by reducing cooperation between nations.  

Trade and the multilateral trading system have helped to build a more prosperous world and we must ensure that they continue to do so – in an ever more inclusive way.

The world is changing fast. If we want to remain relevant, we must be ready to change as well.

So this brings me back to the point of reform, and shaping the path forward for the trading system.

I've been trying to advance reforms at the WTO ever since I became Director-General. The ICC has been an important ally in that effort. And we have had some important successes, delivering a series of new and innovative agreements, which are now being implemented.

The new reform debate is still in its early stages, but we already see a number of ideas being brought forward around how to modernise in an inclusive way.

Members are focusing on issues such as how to strengthen the work of our regular bodies and committees which monitor how members observe the current rules of the WTO.

They are also looking at ways to address issues like the WTO's dispute settlement mechanism. This includes urgently resolving the impasse in the appointments to the Appellate Body.

And they are looking at how we might be able to improve our negotiating work – including through exploring new flexibilities and innovative approaches.

Updating the rulebook is fundamental if the trading system is to truly respond to the needs of business.

The major issue here is whether or not we can make progress multilaterally, in undertakings that have all members on board.

We have to find innovative ways to inject new energy and momentum into longstanding multilateral issues. This includes issues such as agriculture and food security. It also includes negotiations to address harmful fisheries subsidies. This is a very important area – and members are working to meet the end-of-year deadline to strike a deal.

I'm certain that we can deliver multilaterally, but it is also undeniable that in many areas progress has proved difficult.

That's why we are now seeing many members focusing on plurilateral efforts within the WTO – it reflects their fatigue at the lack of progress elsewhere. It also reflects the need to respond faster to a number of very pressing issues.

You may be aware of the joint initiatives that are now being pursued by large groups of members. No one is forced to participate in these initiatives – but, equally, they remain open to all.

The impetus for this work came, in part, through the private sector.

After the successes of our Bali and Nairobi ministerial meetings, the ICC and B20 held the first business event at the WTO, under our Trade Dialogues initiative.

These exchanges helped to define some issues of emerging economic importance for the private sector.

That call for action came in 2016. By the following year, members had responded.

At our Ministerial Meeting in Buenos Aires in 2017, large groups of members launched joint initiatives on e-commerce, investment facilitation, small businesses and the economic empowerment of women.

Last week, we saw the launch of another Joint Initiative on Domestic Regulation in Services.

And in each case there is real momentum.

As of this month, 77 WTO members accounting for 90% of global trade are engaged in negotiations on trade-related aspects of e‑commerce.

With all of this in mind I think we are entering a critical period.

We have some key milestones on the horizon.

For example, we have the G20 Summit in Japan at the end of next month, where leaders will want a report on progress in reforming the WTO.

And we have our 12th Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan in June next year, where members will be looking to deliver new negotiated outcomes.

This is a moment for the private sector to consider what it wants from the trading system – and to communicate this to the world.  

We now have established channels through which to do so.

The Trade Dialogues with business that we have established at the request of the ICC and B20 will be vital.

Last week the ICC and the B20 launched an online platform to take this discussion forward.

The aim is to allow the debate to develop to a new level of detail – even suggesting ideas for legal wording that WTO members could consider. I look forward to hearing about the results of these discussions during the WTO Public Forum in October this year – including what issues you think that members should be prioritising for the Ministerial Conference. I think this is a really important conversation – so I urge you all to get involved.

This centenary summit is a moment to remember why all of this matters so much.

The creation of the ICC was bold. It was a statement of intent about the positive role that business can play in the world.

As we look to a new century of multilateralism, we need to summon up that spirit once again. We need your boldness, ambition and innovation to help improve and strengthen the trading system for the future. I look forward to working with you in that effort.

Thank you.

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