25 May 2004

WTO Public Symposium “Multilateralism at a crossroads”

25 to 27 May 2004, Geneva

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to welcome you here at the WTO headquarters. Every year, more and more people find their way to Geneva to attend our annual Public Symposium, and this year, the number of registered participants is almost 1200, including more than 150 speakers. This growing number sends a strong signal to the WTO, its Secretariat and its Members, that the need for public debate and reflection on the WTO and the multilateral trading system is not diminished. On the contrary, your presence here today proves that the transparency efforts that I, and my predecessors, have made are more necessary than ever. In this respect, allow me at the start to thank the Government of Norway for its generous financial support to organize our Public Symposium. As was the case in 2003, it is thanks to the Norwegian authorities that we are able to hold this event and ensure the participation of people from different parts of the world, in particular from the least-developed countries. Let me reiterate that without such support, we would not be in a position to do so and I would like to encourage other WTO Members to follow this example.

I personally attach the utmost importance to open and interactive events such as WTO's Public Symposia. It goes without saying that you can learn and study international trade theory at universities around the world. In doing so, many economists - including myself - have developed their fascination for trade matters and many will still follow. One can read about trade in the newspapers or on the Internet - more often than ever before – and compare the continuously changing opinions and positions on all aspects of the multilateral trading system. I strongly encourage you to continue to do so.

But the realities of trade cannot be taught from textbooks or appreciated from surfing the net. They have to be experienced. WTO's Public Symposia provide for these reality checks by bringing together the various stakeholders and actors of the multilateral trading system, stimulating open debate. This provides all of you with an opportunity to get further involved and be genuinely exposed to the full diversity of opinions and positions, as is clearly reflected in this year's programme.

I know that you come here for your own specific reasons, be it to participate in the impressive 3-day symposium programme, to listen to the many excellent speakers, or for the networking opportunities that this event offers to all of you. Or maybe the slightly thought-provoking title of the Symposium, “Multilateralism at a Crossroads”, made you decide to make the trip to Geneva. Whatever the reason, I am convinced that you will be able to find topics of real interest among the numerous and ambitious workshops that will be held in the coming days. Our formula – repeated again in this year – of allowing participants to organize their own workshops, is one of the foundations for success of the WTO Public Symposia. This year a total of 29 workshops will be held, of which 4 are organized by the WTO and 25 by NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, academic institutions and WTO Members. Never before have we seen such a high number. I am extremely pleased that the interest in working with us to organize the symposium is still growing.

But I believe that there is a more important cause for this impressive turnout of representatives of non-governmental organizations, research institutes, academia, governments and parliaments, business and media. And that is the growing need to better understand and appreciate what is really at stake at the World Trade Organization and the ongoing Doha Development Agenda.

The WTO is the unique forum for multilateral trade negotiations. At times of global economic uncertainty and instability, the multilateral trading system has faced many challenges and setbacks. But the system has always been the safe haven to which its ever growing and diverse membership returns, because the WTO – like the GATT before it - has been extraordinarily successful in preserving peaceful trading relations between nations, and generating the necessary conditions for economic growth. This is what brought WTO Members to their decision to launch the Doha Development Agenda in 2001.

But times change quickly and memories tend to be short. The WTO and the multilateral system are under pressure again to deliver results. I have consistently argued that, if governments and their constituents – and that means all of you! – lose faith in the ability of the Doha negotiations to deliver results, we can expect to see a growing imbalance between multilateral and bilateral deal making, widening the gap between stronger and weaker countries. The foundations upon which the multilateral trading system is built, non-discrimination and transparency, are at stake here. These core principles make the international trading environment more predictable and less complex. If we don't make sufficient progress in the negotiations and conclude them successfully, it is the poorest countries that will lose the most.

Apparently, my message is having the desired effect because the mood is changing, both within and outside of the WTO.

Ladies and Gentlemen, an important and historic window of opportunity is before us. Your presence here at the end of May could not have been better timed.

As you all know, 2004 is a crucial year for the Doha negotiations and the multilateral trading system in general. We are again at a crossroads. Since the beginning of this year, starting with the instrumental efforts by USTR Zoellick, we have witnessed a number of very important initiatives and inputs to help move the process forward. I personally saw a much needed, new level of political commitment at important ministerial gatherings such as the OECD Ministerial Conference in Paris and the LDC Ministerial Conference in Senegal. WTO Members are showing a remarkable sense of political urgency and realism, combined with the willingness to negotiate substance, and are determined to reach framework agreements by July. This became particularly clear when European Commissioners Lamy and Fischler recently unfolded their courageous plans, evoking solution-oriented and forward-looking responses from important groups such as the G20. The atmosphere and political environment in which we are working today have clearly changed and will no doubt, be further influenced by upcoming Ministerial gatherings, such as those of the African Union in Kigali and the APEC countries meeting in Chile. Progress is there for all to see. I am accordingly very pleased that Commissioner Lamy, being one of its contributors, has found the time to join us this morning before leaving to attend the EU-Mercosur Summit.

But we must not be over-confident. We are still faced with a number of very real and complex difficulties. The strong and unequivocal message of political confidence and determination that has come out of recent international gatherings needs to be translated into concrete action and solid progress at the Geneva negotiating table. We only have very limited time. Nor should we forget that, if we fail to seize this opportunity, we run the risk of losing the rest of this year, as well as most of 2005. I am therefore continually urging WTO Members to balance their ambition with realism.

At moments of apparent success, it is tempting to seek more than is feasible and pre-empt the final outcome of the negotiations. But, let's remember that the July package is not the end of the Doha negotiations. We are looking for framework-level agreements which will provide a solid platform to conclude the negotiations subsequently. As I said in Paris during the recent OECD Ministerial Conference – the Doha mandate will still be there after July and it is against that yardstick that we all will have the chance to judge the end result before agreeing to it.

The responsibility for successfully concluding the Doha negotiations does not fall upon the WTO Members alone. Since the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle in 1999, national and international trade policy has been under heavy scrutiny from civil society organizations from around the world. Many of the participants here today were part of this development. Whatever your point of view, it has to be acknowledged that you succeeded in making your voices heard and in having your arguments –at least some- taken into account by the WTO and its Members. It is equally true that, because of this growing influence, you too can be partially held accountable for the success AND failures this organization has seen.

The time has come to show that you can live up to that responsibility, as some of you already did after the unfortunate outcome of the Cancun Ministerial Conference. Over the years, familiarity with the multilateral trading system has grown. Many of the organizations here today have built up a tremendous network of knowledge and resources. I urge you to use your knowledge and experience in a responsible way, to the longer term benefit of the system and its Members. The WTO is at work again, determined to further improve and reform the multilateral system, to the benefit of its Members and their constituents. I see no reason why you should not add your voice to that.

Thank you.