World Trade    WT/MIN(96)/ST/9

    9 December 1996




Singapore, 9-13 December 1996


Statement by the Right Honourable Ian Lang, M.P.

President of the Board of Trade

Head of the Department of Trade and Industry

    It is a great pleasure to be speaking today at this first Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization. I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to our very gracious hosts for their hospitality and friendship.

    My fellow trade Ministers and I are gathered here in Singapore at a very significant time in the development of multilateral free trade. Huge progress on freeing up world trade has been made over the past 50 years. But the task of maintaining the commitment to the multilateral system and to global liberalization remains as great as ever.

    Putting into action the measures agreed in the Uruguay Round will lead to an increase in world incomes and provide a boost to world trade and living standards. Ten years after its completion, the results of the Round will have increased world trade by between 9 and 24 per cent, and world incomes by over US$500 billion per year. The incomes of developing and transition economies should, after full implementation, be some US$116 billion per year higher. These are truly staggering figures. But it is not enough. We have a duty to ensure that this stimulus to global prosperity is followed through in the future and is shared by all.

    The UK's priorities for the World Trade Organization are focused on issues which are most important in tackling the trade barriers which confront our businesses and those of our trading partners. We want to push ahead with work on these issues in a spirit of cooperation not confrontation.

    So we would like to see a substantial new work programme. I believe that this offers benefits to the developed and developing economies alike. Some examples:

    Standards: we need closer cooperation between the WTO and international standards-setting bodies; we need these bodies to concentrate their work on those standards and technical regulations which are of real practical importance to trade; and we need WTO Members to make much more use of international standards rather than going their own way. We cannot rest on our laurels in this field, there is much more work to do.

    Trade facilitation: as traditional trade barriers fall away, the simplification of import and export regulations and procedures has become an increasingly significant priority. The burden of compliance with these regulations could amount to as much as 10 per cent of the value of world trade in goods. So, as with standards, the aim should be to work together with other organizations to devote priority resource and negotiating effort in those areas which are critical to freeing up trade.

    Government procurement: here we surely need a new dialogue involving all WTO Members to explore the enormous benefits available from extending transparent and non-discriminatory purchasing practices. No one need feel threatened by a dialogue.

    These three issues cover areas where internal liberalization in the European market has yielded enormous benefits. We want to explore the scope for getting comparable benefits around the globe. But there is more.

    We all stand to make great gains from further liberalization of investment. Again, for the present, the emphasis in the WTO should be on analytical, exploratory and confidence-building work. That should not cut across negotiations currently under way in the OECD for a Multilateral Agreement on Investment, and it really should not threaten anyone, developed or developing.

    Those are some of our priorities for the work programme. Not so divisive as some other issues. And practical. We also want to make real progress at Singapore with the negotiations which are already under way. Let us complete, at least in outline, an Information Technology Agreement aimed at the rapid elimination of tariffs on IT products with as wide a participation of countries as possible. And let us make real progress on the basic telecommunications negotiations. I hope that we will see a lot of improved liberalization offers this week.

    In all this, let us reaffirm the primacy of the multilateral system. We have under way in the WTO a very important debate on the relationship between regional groupings and the multilateral system. We are committed to the work of the Committee on Regional Trade Agreements. We must draw on the energies channelled through these arrangements to reinforce, and not detract from, multilateral liberalization.

    Another important issue is the relationship between trade liberalization and the protection of the environment. This is complex and it is essential to provide a framework in which both can be achieved in harmony. We therefore continue to support the work of the Trade and Environment Committee.

    Let us also reaffirm our political commitment to implementation of the new rules and commitments agreed during the Uruguay Round. Full implementation is a key to the continuing success of the WTO. It must be a priority for governments as it is for business and consumers.

    To ensure that the gains from trade truly are shared we must address the interests of the poorest countries and promote their integration into the world trading system. That is why the United Kingdom welcomes the Director-General's proposal that tariffs should be bound at zero for products from the least developed countries. The least developed countries are the 48 poorest countries in the world: their exports to all countries account for just 0.4 per cent of world trade. And, not least in their interests, we would like to begin new work on ways to reduce the significant trade barriers created by complex preferential rules of origin.

    It is also of outstanding importance for us to work at the integration into the world trade system of those countries which are not yet WTO Members. Ongoing accession negotiations are a crucial part of the WTO's work, not least those with Russia and China. These negotiations are not easy for the countries concerned. Prospective WTO Members must accept WTO rules. But for our part the will is there: we want you in.

    Some countries have proposed that trade and labour should form part of the WTO's new work programme. Here I have to disagree. While Britain is as strongly opposed to child labour and forced labour as anyone else, we see no case for taking trade measures in support of social standards. This would only weaken the economies of the countries concerned and make them less able to remedy social problems. We take the view that the International Labour Organization is the appropriate forum for promoting labour standards, not the WTO. This is also the view of most of European industry, as the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of Europe have recently confirmed. We know it is also the view of most other countries around the world. Let us not divide the WTO on this issue.

    Let us instead look forward on matters where we have interests in common.

    The built-in agenda provides a clear and important programme of work to the end of the century. This and a substantial new work programme, with real practical priorities, can give the WTO the forward momentum it needs.

    To those who say that digestion of the Uruguay Round results is all they can cope with, I sympathise. But I have to say that that is not enough. We must drive the agenda forward: we will all gain in the long term. We do not have to commit now. But we do have to prepare now.

    So, first, a successful outcome from the Singapore WTO Ministerial - setting in train a comprehensive work programme on a broad front of core trade issues. We should then devote our efforts through 1997 to a practical dialogue and take up the results when we next convene. I believe that the next Ministerial Conference should then take place early in 1998, well within the next two years, and 50 years after the GATT started.

    Second, a new multilateral trade negotiating Round launched before the end of the century, delivering a further big liberalizing package before 2010. The negotiations scheduled in the built-in agenda would naturally form part of a new round of trade negotiations before the end of the century. The other trade issues I have mentioned would complement these - and let us not forget tariffs, that staple commodity of trade negotiations which is still vital.

    Third, let us be visionary. Looking to the future, let us consider a commitment both by my European Union colleagues and by other WTO Members to global free trade. By 2020. This could complement various regional initiatives for free trade. If the whole of APEC can set itself a target for free trade by 2020, why cannot the WTO do the same?

    What do I mean by global free trade? I mean the complete elimination of tariffs, import quotas and voluntary export restraints on world trade in all goods. I mean the removal of non-tariff barriers, in the field of technical standards, public procurement, and trade documentation and procedures. And I mean something very similar across the services sector.

    I hope that my colleagues will reflect on the benefits we would secure for our economies and for our fellow-citizens through the achievement of global free trade. But first a new work programme. And then a new round.