WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo Gears Up for Second Term

2 March 2017

WTO members formally reappointed Director-General Roberto Azevêdo for a second term on Tuesday 28 February, with the global trade chief outlining to members the day before his vision for the organisation’s next four years.

Speaking to members at Monday’s General Council, Azevêdo described both the achievements seen during his first term, as well as his plans and possible challenges going forward. Azevêdo ran unopposed for this upcoming term.

Azevêdo took office in September 2013, transitioning from Brazil’s WTO ambassador to serving as the head of the Geneva-based organisation. At the time, members were heading into their ninth ministerial conference (MC9) in Bali, Indonesia, where they ultimately concluded negotiations for a global Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). That new multilateral deal entered into force just last week. (See Bridges Weekly, 23 February 2017)

“There was a tangible sense of crisis back then – and it was very real. We had not delivered any major multilaterally negotiated outcomes since 1995,” the WTO chief recalled of the pre-Bali context, referring to that ministerial’s outcome as “historic.”

Since then, other developments that have been seen at the WTO include the expansion of the Information Technology Agreement (ITA), an agreement among a group of WTO members to slash tariffs on select information and communication technology goods. (See Bridges Daily Update, 16 December 2015)

Trade ministers gathering at the WTO’s tenth ministerial conference (MC10) in Nairobi, Kenya, also agreed on new disciplines regarding the elimination of agricultural export subsidies, among other decisions. However, that same conference also saw members unable to bridge divisions over whether to reaffirm the mandate of the Doha Round of trade talks, which have been underway since 2001 and have repeatedly struggled to advance over the years. (See Bridges Daily Update, 19 December 2015)

At the time, ministers ultimately agreed to disagree on the Doha Round framework, while agreeing to continue work on its issues. While the topic of whether to begin negotiating on so-called “new issues” was also hotly debated, WTO members decided that any formal negotiations on those subjects within the global trade body would require consensus among the membership.

“Members were talking to each other and putting forward new ideas on many of the key issues. We tried every approach we could think of – particularly during 2015… We did all that, but still we could not bridge the gaps between members’ positions,” said Azevêdo.

Other aspects of his first term that Azevêdo raised during his speech on Monday were the improvements made internally at the secretariat to help address the heavy caseload being faced by dispute settlement lawyers – even with budget and human resources constraints – while at the same time noting that “the system has no spare capacity to respond to any future rise in cases.”

He also referred to the value of the WTO’s regular bodies, including in tracking members’ commitments being put into practice. Throughout the speech, he also highlighted the value of technical assistance and capacity building in helping all WTO members make the most of the system.

“Progress can only happen with full engagement by members. But the ability to engage is bound up with the question of capacity. I want to do more to empower members so that they feel ownership of the system – this applies to the smallest and least developed members the most,” he said.

Next stop: Buenos Aires

Azevêdo’s second term will formally begin on 1 September 2017, just months before trade ministers head to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for their eleventh ministerial conference (MC11).

In the 14 months since the Nairobi ministerial in December 2015, WTO members have undertaken a process of “reflection” on where to take the organisation’s negotiating arm. From that process, many WTO members have expressed interest in seeing concrete negotiating outcomes in Buenos Aires on the famously difficult issue of domestic agricultural support.

Debates are also underway on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies and potentially making some headway on the issue of e-commerce, which despite being the subject of a WTO work programme has been discussed relatively little in a formal context within the organisation until recently. Services facilitation and domestic regulation have also been raised by some members.

At Monday’s General Council, Azevêdo reiterated the value of negotiated results for supporting the current trading system. However, last week he had additionally warned members at an informal meeting that much work remains if they wish to deliver “concrete outcomes” in time for the 11-14 December meetings in the Argentine capital.

“My honest assessment is that in all areas we still have a long way to go – and a huge amount of work ahead if we are to arrive at concrete outcomes,” he said last week, noting that effectively WTO members have eight working months left to prepare for the Buenos Aires ministerial.

He also encouraged members at the time to put forward any proposals they have in mind promptly, in order to help ensure that they can advance into more specific discussions by this summer.

Learning from history

Along with describing the changes that the WTO has seen since he took office, the multilateral trade chief also referred to the various major developments seen on the geopolitical stage in recent years and their potentially profound ramifications for the organisation.

While not referring to these specifically by name, some of these developments have included the June 2016 referendum in the United Kingdom, which saw voters endorse by a narrow margin the idea of exiting the European Union. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she hopes to invoke the formal procedures to kick off those talks by the end of March, with the process due to affect the UK’s and EU’s schedules within the WTO among a host of other trade issues. (See Bridges Weekly, 23 February 2017)

Across the Atlantic, the November 2016 elections in the United States saw the election of a new president after one of the most bitterly contested presidential campaigns in recent memory that often focused on trade. (For more on the US, see related story, this edition)

In practical terms, while Robert Lighthizer has been nominated to serve as new US Trade Representative, he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Meanwhile, a replacement for the previous Deputy USTR and US Ambassador to the WTO, Michael Punke, has not yet been nominated.

Elections underway this year across Europe are similarly expected to bring public tensions on trade, migration, and the broader concept of globalisation to the fore. (See Bridges Weekly, 9 February 2017)

The WTO chief alluded broadly to the global context in his speech to members this week, arguing that “the value of mutually-agreed global rules is evident” in this type of situation, while noting that the current system emerged in “direct response to the bloody lessons of history.”

“Global economic growth is low. Trade growth is low. The threat of protectionism cannot be ignored. Multilateralism faces momentous hardships. And we struggle with the persistent challenges of poverty, inequality, and under-development,” said Azevêdo in describing today’s trade context.

He also called upon governments to develop policies that would invoke trade’s potential as “part of the solution” toward achieving “sustainable social and economic development,” along with working together on the global stage.

“We must all work to defend the system. We all have a role to play to safeguard this key element of global economic governance. The role of members is vital here – so too is the role of each individual: ambassadors, permanent representatives, WTO staff… everyone – myself included,” said Azevêdo.

ICTSD reporting.

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