Just three weeks into the job, new World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevedo hinted Monday at the beginning of a more dynamic era for the body long hampered by deadlocked global trade talks.
“I see that there is a different mood at the WTO today. The dynamic is different,” said Azevedo, a Brazilian career diplomat who took the reins of the global trade organisation from Frenchman Pascal Lamy on September 1.
An energy boost will surely be needed as the organisation that sets the rules for global commerce strives to reach consensus on a long range of issues ahead of a summit in Bali in December.
The summit is seen as perhaps the last chance to revive the so-called “Doha Round” of talks, launched in 2001 to craft a global accord on opening markets and removing trade barriers, in order to harness international commerce to develop poorer economies.
Differences over the give and take needed have fuelled clashes notably between China, the European Union, India and the United States, and left the talks stalled for years, leading many countries to shift focus to bilateral and regional deals.
The Bali conference “is a priority for us,” Azevedo told reporters in Geneva, stressing that pre-Bali negotiations need to have made significant progress by the end of next month.
With this aim in mind, the WTO was hosting “meetings with business-like objectives, they start on time, and the interventions are limited to 60 seconds,” he said.
Azevedo stressed that he was not only very insistent that country ambassadors to the WTO attended meetings, but that he was making a point of personally taking part and cohosting the sessions.
His presence and the high attendance had already made it possible to unblock a number of sticky issues of contention between the WTO’s 159 member states in their negotiations leading up to Bali, he said.
His comments could be seen as an implicit criticism of his predecessor Lamy, who travelled extensively during his eight years at the helm of the WTO and rarely spent long periods of time at the organisation’s Geneva headquarters.
The Frenchman has said he logged some 450,000 kilometres (280,000 miles) of travel on average each year that he headed the WTO — equivalent to 10 trips around the world — in his bid to bring the world’s decision makers to the table and unlock stalled global trade talks.
According to an EU diplomatic source, it is clear that the WTO has changed gears since the arrival of Azevedo.
While the Brazilian was obviously benefiting from a “honeymoon” effect, “the member states were also eager for new WTO leadership after two Lamy mandates,” he added, requesting anonymity.
Azevedo, who before his appointment as WTO chief spent five years as his country’s ambassador to the organisation, enjoys a reputation as a consensus-builder who knows the WTO system inside out.
He stressed Monday that strict discipline was needed as negotiations address several sticky issue in parallel.
“The rule of 60 seconds (speaking time) is a bit of shock treatment,” he acknowledged, describing other school-style discipline measures as well.
When a meeting is scheduled for 10:00 am, he said, “It starts at 10 and the doors are closed, even if there are only two member states (present). Next time, everybody will be on time.”
He will need to loosen his grip slightly during a pending trip to take part in a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
He was quick to point out Monday that the trip to Asia would be with the aim “to meet decision makers,” and to help pave a road to success in Bali.
“I do not travel to make speeches,” he said in another apparent veiled jab at Lamy.
While stressing the importance of Bali, Azevedo meanwhile insisted that the summit “is not an endpoint”.
“There will be work after Bali,” he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]