“This might well be our Bretton Woods moment. Let’s not waste it.” — DDG Ellard

In her opening remarks at the 12th RSIS-WTO Virtual Parliamentarian Workshop on May 10, 2022, Deputy Director-General Angela Ellard discussed the state of negotiations ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference and the impact of the war in Ukraine on the global trade outlook. She emphasized the need to re-engage with international institutions and called on parliamentarians to help the WTO achieve balanced outcomes. The full text of her remarks is below.

Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members of Parliament, Mr. Lim Hock Chuan, Amb. Ong Keng Yong,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good afternoon from Geneva

Thank you, RSIS, for organizing this workshop with the WTO. This is our 12th workshop for parliamentarians, and we are grateful for your partnership in helping us spread the word about the WTO and its mission.

I wish I could join you in Singapore in person. I have very fond memories of the very first WTO ministerial conference, held in Singapore almost 25 years ago, when I brought an excited group of Members of the U.S. Congress as their chief trade counsel to see the WTO in action.

Every day on my way to my office along the Geneva lakeside, I pass an exhibition of political cartoons that covers the three crises of our time: the Covid-19 pandemic, the environment and climate change, and the war in Ukraine. These three crises permeate the WTO’s agenda.

In just over a month, the WTO will hold its 12th Ministerial Conference, or MC12. This conference will be like no other because the war has dimmed the global trade outlook: we estimate global merchandise trade volumes to expand by only 3% this year – down from the 4.7% we predicted last October, and this forecast may be downgraded further.

The war has also led to a spike in energy and food prices and is raising fears about food security far beyond Ukraine’s borders. Vulnerable communities in Asia, Africa, and Middle East face famine, riots, and mass migration. Together with other international organizations, we are working to reduce such risks by discouraging export restrictions, keeping supply chains open, and facilitating trade in agricultural products.

Negotiating and seeking consensus in this geopolitical climate is difficult. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do it, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should stop working. Several important issues need Members’ active engagement and flexibility to achieve results now and to set our path after MC12. Let me highlight a few.

First, we can’t forget that the war came hot on the heels of the pandemic, further exacerbating the existing economic crisis. And although in many parts of the world, the health situation has improved, we’re not completely out of the woods. Vaccine inequity remains acute in some countries, and we must think about future pandemic preparedness.

At the WTO, we’ve been working intensively on two fronts. First, we’re working with our Members on practical trade responses involving trade liberalization, export restrictions, transparency, tech transfer, and others.  Relatedly, we’ve been helping countries and companies detect and remove bottlenecks to smooth supply chains.

Second, Members have been deeply engaged as to the role of intellectual property rights with respect to COVID vaccines. The proposal our Members are now considering is the result of discussions among key players.  It seeks to support the ability of vulnerable developing countries to produce vaccines in a targeted way, while continuing to support innovation. We need the consensus of our Members to make it part of the WTO rulebook.

Another multilateral negotiation where we seek an agreement is on fisheries subsidies. Concluding these negotiations after 20 years is an environmental, economic, and humanitarian imperative. There are several outstanding issues, particularly flexibilities for developing countries. The deal is withing reach, and we’ve seen new momentum just this week.  Members must exercise flexibility and pragmatism to get there. Our oceans, and those communities who depend on them, can’t wait any longer.

And we must revamp the three functions of the WTO: negotiations, monitoring, and dispute settlement.  Doing so will improve the ability of the WTO to meet the needs of our Members. It will send a message that working within rules and institutions is still possible and, in fact, far better than the alternative.

One area of great interest is the effect of subsidies on the global economy. We recently issued a paper, together with the IMF, World Bank, and OECD, to highlight current knowledge about subsidies, point to data gaps, and outline areas of potential future work.

At this inflection point in history, the value of multilateralism and the rules-based international order is especially high. Instead of retreating, countries must reengage with international institutions to make them stronger, more resilient, and better equipped to address the pressing challenges of today’s world. Fragmentation can be costly. Our economists estimate that if the world economy breaks into two trading blocs, global GDP could shrink by about 5 percent.

I’ll conclude with a plea. If you value the WTO, help us make the case that it is relevant and worth improving. The WTO cannot be taken for granted, or else it won’t be the lodestar for the economic rule of law that is so vital. Please talk to your Ministers and counterparts and help us achieve balanced outcomes on the issues I’ve outlined.

This might well be our Bretton Woods moment. Let’s not waste it.