Keith Rockwell - “Anyone Who Thinks the WTO Is Waning Doesn’t Know the New Director General!”

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May 01, 2014
by Louise Hallman
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Keith Rockwell - “Anyone Who Thinks the WTO Is Waning Doesn’t Know the New Director General!”

Spokesperson for the WTO on the organization's post-Bali future and why he's not concerned about the rising number of megaregional FTAs Keith Rockwell speaking on the opening day of "New Dynamics in Global Trade Architecture"

Keith Rockwell, Spokesperson and Director Information and External Relations of the World Trade Organization is in Salzburg to present at the session "New Dynamics in the Global Trade Architecture: WTO, G20 and Regional Trade Agreements". He spoke to Salzburg Global Editor, Louise Hallman, to dismiss claims that the WTO is losing its central place in the global trade architecture and assuage worries that the WTO will just rest on its laurels now it has successfully negotiated the Bali Package in December last year.

SGS: In his book “Building on Bali: A Work Programme for the WTO” co-edited with Alejandro Jara [available at the session], Simon Evenett said that the Bali Package at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali in December last year meant that the WTO was able to avoid “abject failure”. So how much of a success was Bali for the WTO?

KR: You know, I would turn that around; it was actually a very important success. Now it’s true that what we agreed in Bali is but a small portion of the overall Doha negotiations, but it’s an important segment. It deals with trade facilitation, and there’s all kinds of figures that have been bandied about as to how much it’s going to help the global economy, how much it could increase trade flows – the bottom line is: that business wants it. This is going to make it easier, cheaper and faster to move goods across borders.

But beyond that there were some important agreements on food security, on the Least Developed Countries, on other elements of agriculture that were important. True – it was not legally binding, but still move our process in the right direction and now what we have to try and do is get ourselves prepared to conclude the rest of these issues, to make these issues that are hanging on from Bali, more legally binding, make them more operational – and that’s something that we’re working on now.

SGS: The Doha Round has been stalled for quite some time now; what do you think was the reason for the breakthrough at Bali?

KR: There’s a number of things. I think our new Director General was a big reason for that. I think Roberto Azevedo changed gears; he changed the way [the WTO] had been addressing these issues; he changed the negotiating process, he made it more inclusive, more transparent; and he took us through the process, a sometimes very painful process, in a way in which we hadn’t done things before. And I think that was one reason. And he looked at things differently, and I think that was what we needed.

In addition to that, there was a great deal of concern about what a failure would mean for the WTO as a negotiating forum. We have a lot of other functions: dispute settlement, regular work of the committees, monitoring and surveillance, training, all of these things are very important but the negotiating function is a very, very important function as well.

So, by striking this deal, what we did was we turned people’s attention back to the WTO as a place where business can get done. It’s true there are a lot of other shows in town – you can do things regionally or bilaterally – and we don’t think that’s a bad thing. We think that these regional and bilateral agreements can be building blocks, they can be laboratories for good ideas, they can be places where people get used to the notion of opening trade. And if you can open trade in a bilateral context or a regional context, why in the world could you not do that in a multilateral context?

SGS: And so you’re not concerned then by the seemingly increasing move towards the “megaregional FTAs” like the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)? This isn’t the end of centrality for the WTO?

KR: No, and this is not new. These kinds of agreements have been negotiated before. These particular agreements – TPP, TTIP, RCEP – were very big, but the issues that they are tackling there are very difficult issues; we know this because many of these issues have been taken up in the WTO. Whether it’s the issue of genetically modified organisms, the issue of imports of rice, or the issue of automobiles, whether it’s a question about cultural exceptions, or whatever it may be, these are issue that we see in the WTO and they are not easy to resolve. Maybe if these guys can figure out a way to resolve them in a smaller context this might give impetus to us in the WTO to find solutions as well. It’s happened before; if you look at APEC. APEC is where they had the first agreement on trade facilitation; APEC is where they had an agreement on environmental goods, and now we’re starting a negotiation that literally builds on that agreement. That’s the starting point.

We see these things as being complementary. We need to make sure there is a degree of coherence. The worry really is more that you have for example different regulatory systems being created in these different fora and that’s going to create for international business entrepreneurs a real problem because they’re going to have to make products differently and go about their business differently, depending on what market they’re going to be doing business in.

SGS: The WTO is still the “only show in town” (as one Fellow put it) when it comes to disputes; is this where the WTO can best maintain its centrality?

KR: Well our disputes solution mechanism work extremely well. To a certain extent, we’ve been a victim of our own success; we see a huge number of disputes coming there. In the last two years I think we’ve had 28 disputes because there are ambiguities in the agreements – sometimes you have members who just aren’t in compliance – sometimes there’s a level of ambiguity which could be resolved through improved rulemaking, but we’ve been unable to do that.

SGS: Would the WTO like to see it written into more of these FTAs and RTAs that they must comply with the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism?

KR: Well that’s a complicated question because it depends on what the issue is. If it’s an issue of tariffs or anti-dumping then we have existing rules and members can bring disputes to the WTO on anything they like. But let’s say the dispute is about social standards, or competition, or investment, or certain types of environmental practices that aren’t covered by our rules, it would be hard to bring that kind of thing into the WTO forum because our rules don’t necessarily extend to these kind of things. Now, as I said, members can do whatever they like, but I think that kind of thing might create some complications for us down the road.

SGS: And so what would you now say to people who are claiming that the WTO after it’s breakthrough in Bali is now just basking in the glow of Bali and yet again resting on its laurels and waning in influence?

KR: I think those people don’t know Roberto Azevedo! Because if you know him, you will know that that is not at all what is going on. We’re in a moment right now where people are looking at how to move forward, they know the approach we’ve been taking doesn’t work. And those people that insist that we keep going about things in exactly the way we have done before, to them – the director general and the negotiating groups – pose the question: what is different today than in 2008 that would make an agreement possible, doing things this way, where it hasn’t been possible for the last six years? And so far no one has answered that question. So people are at least beginning to say, “Hmm, let’s listen to hear what people’s perspectives are.”

Now, we’re not suggesting that we throw away all the work that’s been done before – by no means do we suggest that. But you need to take the elements of these existing negotiating texts and find the bits that work and maybe you have to make some alternations or you have to supplement them in some way; these are the types of discussions, they’re highly technical, that being discussed now. Suggestions are being fed through, a lot of data has been analyzed, and the picture in the marketplace is different today to what it was before. Members want a very clear picture about what’s happening and we’re working on that for them right now. And my expectation is that in the latter part of this year, the last quarter of this year, there’ll be an awful lot of hard work going on in Geneva – like we had last year – and hopefully it’ll produce the same effect.


An expanded list of speakers and participants as well as a full program agenda can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/533 You can follow the three days' discussions on Twitter with the hashtag #SGStrade