Azevêdo Sets Bali Ministerial Success as "First Priority"

12 September 2013

Achieving a successful result at this December's WTO ministerial conference in Bali will be his "first priority," new Director-General Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo told the organisation's members in his inaugural speech on Monday. In his statement, the global trade chief outlined a "rolling schedule of meetings" that he has planned for the coming weeks in the hopes of reaching that goal.

The former Brazilian ambassador took office as WTO head on 1 September, barely three months before the organisation is set to hold its ministerial conference. (See Bridges Weekly, 5 September 2013) WTO members have spent most of the past year racing to put together a three-pronged package of deliverables in time for the Bali event, pulled from the broader Doha Round negotiations.

The so-called "Bali package," as currently discussed, would have a trade facilitation agreement at its core, selected agriculture components, and issues of relevance to developing and least developed countries.

The Doha trade talks have already hit multiple snags during their 12-year history, before ultimately being declared at an impasse at the organisation's 2011 ministerial conference in Geneva. The fallout from the impasse, trade observers say, has damaged the WTO's credibility, a perception that the new Director-General acknowledged in his remarks.

"The WTO, as we know, has been defined by what we have been doing in the negotiating front," Azevêdo said. "This is how the world sees us. There's no escaping it."

"People see us as good as Doha. That's the reality," he added.

Success in Bali has been touted as a way for the WTO to show it can still deliver results, particularly in the current global economic context. While recent reports from organisations have indicated signs of a recovery in advanced economies, many warn that there is still more to be done. For instance, the WTO is actually slated to revise is global trade growth estimates for both 2013 and 2014 downward from its earlier predictions, Azevêdo confirmed to reporters following his speech.

However, restoring faith and trust in the WTO, he warned, is not a task he can do alone. "I can suggest the direction, but we must choose this path together," he said.

"Rolling set" of meetings

Prior to the WTO's annual August break, outgoing Director-General Pascal Lamy had warned that the pace of the Bali negotiations - while somewhat improved - was still far too slow, a sentiment that was broadly echoed by trade officials, speaking both publicly and privately. (See Bridges Weekly, 25 July 2013)

Azevêdo hopes to jolt the process by holding "intensive consultations" with members in various formats and configurations, at the ambassadors' level. These will start this week, and will address all three topics that are on the table for Bali. This "rolling set of meetings," he said, will be designed to give all members a voice on the different issues, and are being planned in coordination with the chairs of the negotiating groups involved.

In order to resolve political disagreements, capitals will also be brought into the process, with the Director-General urging senior officials to be "ready to come to Geneva" over the coming weeks to move the negotiations forward. He will also continue his interactions with ministers during the preparations.

There will be regular meetings of the Trade Negotiations Committee - which is tasked with the overall Doha talks - in the coming weeks, which will be convened "as necessary." Azevêdo has also urged members to start identifying areas for possible trade-offs.

Azevêdo made his first international appearance as director-general last week, at the Group of 20 Leaders' Summit in St. Petersburg. Reporting to WTO members on the meeting, he noted that the group had called for all of the global trade body's 159 members to show the "necessary flexibilities" in order to achieve a Bali package.

The G-20, for its part, said it would be "ready to make significant contributions in these negotiations to achieve such results." (For more on the G-20, see related story, this issue)

Bali: Not the "end of the road"

Clinching a Bali package, the new Director-General said, is only a first step. Delivering on the rest of the Doha Round talks "must be part of any future agenda."  However, details on what ideas he has for resolving the remaining Doha issues would be saved for another time.

Improving the WTO's other key functions - such as reducing the heavy demands on the dispute settlement mechanism or strengthening the organisation's monitoring functions - are also important goals, he added. However, for the time being members must focus on "the here and now," specifically the Bali ministerial.

"The intermission is over," he concluded. "It's time the WTO was back at the centre of the world stage. The stakes couldn't be higher. We have to deliver - and if we work together, I know that we will."

ICTSD reporting; "WTO cuts 2013 world trade forecast to 2.5 percent," REUTERS, 7 September 2013.

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