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February 28, 2019

WTO must evolve if it is to have a “bright future”

By Beth Wright

Roberto Azevêdo, director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has told members the trading system must evolve if it is to have a bright future amid unprecedented threats from the current global trade tensions. 

Speaking at a meeting of the full WTO membership yesterday (27 February), Azevêdo commented on the emerging debate on WTO reform, acknowledging the variety of views held by members and arguing that “the time is now to confront systemic challenges”.

“We must do more to make the WTO faster and more responsive to members’ needs. We have achieved a lot in recent years. Since 2013 we have delivered new agreements in a variety of shapes and sizes. We must find ways to keep evolving if the system is to have a chance. Multilateralism will not survive if it becomes a synonym of paralysis,” he said.

Azevêdo also called for efforts to tackle the impasse in the WTO Appellate Body, noting the situation is “clearly of utmost concern and urgency”.

While he acknowledged dialogue is improving, he noted members must start thinking about all possible options in light of the suggested December deadline.

“The reality is that the situation in December is already affecting decisions today,” he said. “Members need to come up with answers and start working on all possible options now, not in December. We do not have ten months to play with.”

“It could be said that one positive aspect of the current trade tensions is that it has encouraged members to speak up in support of the multilateral trading system.”

He added: “Looking across all of these issues, I cannot think of a moment when the systemic threats have been greater. But I also believe that we have a political window to act. It could be said that one positive aspect of the current trade tensions is that it has encouraged members to speak up in support of the multilateral trading system – and for multilateralism more broadly. And I am very grateful for this support. It is our duty to remind the world at every opportunity how much multilateral cooperation matters – and, importantly, how much our organisation matters.”

Earlier this week, Azevêdo welcomed the EU’s engagement in conversations aimed at strengthening the body and called for their continued leadership to help address some of the key challenges in global trade, including current trade tensions and the impasse in the WTO’s dispute settlement system.

His comments come two months after a joint declaration was been signed by all G20 nations that supports the “necessary reform” of the WTO and recognises the current multilateral trading system is “falling short” of its objectives.

The move followed a call by a group of WTO members in October which stated urgent reform is required at the intergovernmental organisation in areas including trade policy transparency, negotiation and dispute settlement.

Meanwhile, trade leaders from the EU, Japan and the US recently shared an update on the progress of a plan to develop a more efficient system that allows global trade to be conducted in a fairer way. The meeting followed on from one in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, where the trio reiterated their call for a reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) after China irked fellow members by allegedly failing to comply with rules the WTO needs to be reported to when a member extends subsidies to domestic industry. 

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