For nearly three years as head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Roberto Azevêdo has maintained there will be no quick solution to the Doha Round, which aims to reduce trade barriers worldwide. In an interview with swissinfo.ch, he also notes that bilateralism is not always an option when global negotiations stall.
The Brazilian diplomat loves playing football on weekends, but from Monday through Friday he spends most of his time in meeting rooms, avoiding the difficulties that may prevent good trade agreements.
swissinfo.ch: What sort of weight does Switzerland carry within the WTO apart from serving as its headquarters?
Roberto Azevêdo: Switzerland is a very active member in the organisation and acts on several fronts in a very competent and constructive manner. Its delegation participates in the international agreement in the area of services, as well as in agriculture, a sector that is very well organised and developed with very important roles in the food chain. Obviously, its participation is important in the fields of industrial goods and high technology, and in the issues of patents and intellectual property, along with the pharmaceutical sector.
There is interest in all these areas. Switzerland is very active and has a very competent delegation. I would say that Switzerland plays a leading role.
R. A. Each year in January, during the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Swiss government organises a mini-ministerial forum at Davos. It is mini because it does not include all ministers, but it brings together around thirty of them who are invited by the Swiss government to discuss international perspectives. This is a leadership role.
swissinfo.ch: What are the chances for completing the Doha Round in the near future?
R. A. None in the immediate future. I do not see a very promising avenue to unblock the negotiations. However, that does not mean we will give up. We always think about the way forward, because it is a very important topic. The area of agricultural subsidies is one. We cannot give up, but to get the kind of result we hoped for when we began in 2001, I see no ray of hope on the horizon.
But I repeat: the WTO is not the Doha Round. This represents only a small part of what people are doing here. Nevertheless, it made headlines and people began to talk about the WTO round. But these are different things, and many things that we began to discuss are not part of the Doha Round...
swissinfo.ch: What is the biggest obstacle to completing the Doha Round?
R. A.: Many things have really changed. From 2001 to 2008, the core of the negotiations included the United States, European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil and India. This is what was called the Group of Six (G6).
In 2008, when we met here in Geneva to try to fix the formalities for negotiations, it was the first time that China was sitting at the table. In other words, the negotiations had been held for seven years without China at the heart of discussions. Many things that had already been negotiated no longer made much sense, since China had in the meantime become one of the the main trading partners in the world.
We encountered difficulties in reorganising a trading architecture that was designed for a different world today. This is, in my opinion, the main difficulty.
Roberto Azevêdo, 58, is an engineer. He joined the Brazilian Foreign Ministry in 1984. He has been posted to embassies in Washington and Montevideo and the Permanent Mission of Brazil in Geneva. He represented Brazil at the WTO from 2008 and was elected director general in 2013 for a period of four years, becoming the first Latin American to hold this position.
He is married to the Ambassador of Brazil in Geneva, Maria Nazareth Farani Azevêdo. The couple has two daughters.
swissinfo.ch: The world has changed so much?
R. A.: Trade flows are completely different from 2001 in terms of intensity, quality, content and value. It is difficult to make these adjustments, since political positions have changed.
swissinfo.ch: Should we start over?
R. A.: It is difficult, because you have a number of documents that have been negotiated over the years. Those who think that the result was good do not want to change anything, while those who believe the opposite want changes. This tension exists all the time; it's really hard.
swissinfo.ch: As you said, the WTO is not just Doha. Apart from this round, what are some other negotiations being held by the WTO that benefit the Swiss and international markets?
R. A.: Negotiations in the field of digital commerce, promotion of investment and fisheries subsidies. Also, in the field of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which is fundamental. This is quite different to the image of WTO operating for large companies. I think we should facilitate the participation of SMEs, which are the main job creators. In some countries, these same SMEs employ 90% of the workforce. All of our members say so. We must ensure that international trade also benefits SMEs.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) aims to supervise and liberalise international trade. The WTO was formally established in 1995. It is based on the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement, which replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) of 1947. The organisation currently includes 162 countries. It employs about 600 people at its headquarters in Geneva.
Since becoming the director-general, Roberto Azevêdo has overseen two major ministerial conferences, in Bali (2013) and Nairobi (2015), which resulted in important trade agreements. In Nairobi, for example, one of these agreements eliminated agricultural export subsidies. It is the considered the most important reform of the agricultural sector since the WTO was created in 1995.
swissinfo.ch: José Serra, the foreign minister of the current interim government of Brazil, stressed the need to conclude bilateral agreements rather than multilateral agreements, such as those normally negotiated in the WTO. What do you think?
R. A.: He did not say exactly that. He said that Brazil should pursue bilateral and regional agreements that had been abandoned, he said, by the previous government. He thinks that Brazil cannot ignore such agreements. I quite agree, but there are also other important things for Brazil taking place here at the WTO.
swissinfo.ch: What, for example?
R. A.: The Brazilian delegation was very active in the WTO. Among the very important issues for Brazil, there is, for example, that of agricultural subsidies. No bilateral agreement will solve this; agricultural subsidies cannot be negotiated in a multilateral manner. If Brazil wants to advance in a negotiation of this type, the WTO has to do it. There is no other place. The WTO is an important trading platform for the agricultural sector.
swissinfo.ch: And what are the possible bilateral negotiations?
R. A.: Many of the portfolios, such as tariffs or opportunities for access to a market, can be more easily negotiated bilaterally. But the regulatory part itself, as agreements on facilitating trade or investment, all this cannot be negotiated bilaterally. This must be done in the WTO. Both approaches are necessary and, I think, complementary.
Translated from French by John Heilprin