WTO DDG Ellard addresses the role of multilateralism in a world of polycrisis

 

On June 24, 2022, Deputy Director-General Angela Ellard delivered a keynote speech to the 2021-2022 Advanced Master Programmes of the University of Berne’s World Trade Institute on the role of multilateralism in a world of polycrisis. In her speech, DDG Ellard addressed the role of the WTO and multilateralism in helping solve the problems of global commons, including the pandemic, overfishing, the food crisis, climate change and environmental degradation. The full text of her speech is below.

Good afternoon, students, members of the faculty, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you, Professor Van den Bossche, for inviting me to deliver a keynote speech at this graduation ceremony.

It is an honour and a pleasure for me to be at this institution, which has such an excellent reputation in the trade world, both for the quality of research it produces as well as the excellence of its graduates.

Students, I know you’ve been through many sleepless nights and a very intense academic year, which is not quite over yet. But you are very close to the finish line. Congratulations on what you have achieved so far! I wish you plenty of energy for the last push.

The title of my today’s speech is “The Role of Multilateralism in the World of Polycrisis”. As I was preparing, I discovered that, in 2018, my predecessor, former WTO Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff, delivered a graduation speech here on a somewhat similar subject – “The Rule of Law in the Age of Conflict”. Although it was only a few years ago and many of the points he made are still relevant, the world we live in today is very different from what it was in 2018, which has consequences for governments and their citizens, as well as the role of multilateralism and the WTO.

There are years in which decades happen. Indeed, the past few years have changed the world and the global economic outlook. We are living through a global pandemic, the war in Europe, rampant inflation, widespread food insecurity in the developing world.  And we are facing the existential threat of climate change, extreme weather events, and environmental degradation. I use the word “polycrisis” to refer to these multiple and overlapping crises of our time. This Greek term was made famous by Jean-Claude Juncker, a former President of the European Commission, in the context of the European crises of the past decade. It is also suitable to describe today’s world more broadly. We live in the world of polycrisis.

Let me start with the pandemic. If there is anything positive about COVID-19, it is the development of vaccines in record time. What was missing, however, was a policy framework to secure global access to vaccines once they became available. Access to vaccines has improved thanks to initiatives such as COVAX and the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub. But in some parts of the world, vaccine inequity remains acute. While on average, 66 percent of the world’s population have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, among low-income countries, the rate averages only 17 per cent. Had the world been better prepared, millions of deaths could have been avoided. We need to learn from this pandemic and get ready for the future ones.

Hot on the heels of the pandemic came the war in Ukraine. In addition to the tragic loss of lives and large-scale destruction within Ukraine, the war has put millions of people in other parts of the world on the brink of starvation.  While more than 20 million tons of wheat are being trapped in Ukrainian silos, hunger is knocking on the doors of many households in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. As food and fertilizer prices hit record high, around 50 million people in 45 countries are facing emergency levels of hunger. Droughts and other climate shocks in some parts of the world exacerbate the threat. As a result, vulnerable communities face the risk of political destabilization and mass migration. Opening Ukrainian ports or finding alternative ways to export is crucial to avoid a global humanitarian catastrophe. In the meantime, we need to find ways to bridge the supply gaps and feed the world’s most vulnerable.

All of this happens against the backdrop of climate change, the single biggest existential threat facing humanity. The IPCC’s latest Report on climate change mitigation has been seen by many as the “last warning” before key Paris Agreement goals fall out of reach. Furthermore, it’s estimated that nearly half of global fish stocks are overfished, with nearly a tenth on the verge of collapse, threatening the livelihood of those who depend on them. Plastic pollution is yet another threat, with 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, of which at least 14 million tons end up in the ocean.

We need to act now to save the planet and our future. And here too we know that many low-income countries are particularly vulnerable.

These problems aren’t experienced by countries in isolation.  Rather, they are problems of the global commons. They concern all of us and cannot be solved by one country or a group of countries. Global challenges require global solutions, and trade – and multilateralism – is part of them.

In many ways, not enough globalization – or multilateralism – has resulted in the world’s uneven, fragmented response to the pandemic, worsening its effects. And vaccine protectionism has led to inadequate attempts to vaccinate people in developing countries, risking the emergence of new, vaccine-resistant variants threatening the world. In short, the pandemic has shown that when a global threat is mismatched with a deglobalized response, a crisis is likely.

In a similar vein, the climate crisis cannot be addressed by states setting their own independent goals without reference to others’ actions. And it would be suboptimal at best to address the issue of overfishing on a bilateral or plurilateral basis, simply because nations are unlikely to curb their subsidies unless they know that other nations will do the same.

The WTO’s multilateral approach has a tremendous role to play in solving all of these problems, to harness the best parts of globalization. It brings all 164 Members to the table and gives each of them a voice. Consensus is very difficult to achieve and negotiating international agreements is the long game. But once consensus, is achieved, it means that there is buy-in from all WTO Members, that they “own” the Agreement, and will be likely to respect it.  It’s not a “majority rules” outcome.

Throughout the academic year, you may have heard that the WTO and multilateralism are in crisis, that consensus is impossible to achieve, and that multilateral agreements have given way to bilateral or plurilateral ones. You have heard calls for “strategic autonomy”, “onshoring”, “nearshoring”, and “friend-shoring”; and newly minted terms, such as “slowbalisation” and “de-globalization”. You may have heard that the WTO is “on life support” or even “dead”.

But last week, the WTO has proved its critics wrong. By achieving results at the 12th Ministerial Conference (or MC12 as we call it), our 164 Members demonstrated that, in times of rising geopolitical tensions and even war, it is still possible to reach multilateral agreements by consensus for the benefit of global public goods. And they did so amid a war, a pandemic, a food crisis, and a tough global economy.  In fact, maybe they were able to do so precisely because of the urgency of these crises.  They showed that it is possible to compartmentalize non-trade concerns, like the war, to address issues related to public health, food security, and environmental sustainability.

The multilateral outcomes that our Members achieved are important not only for the future work of the WTO, but also for other institutions seeking to address issues such as climate change.

And it’s equally important that, in the overarching Outcome Document, Members have reaffirmed their commitment to the WTO and multilateralism by committing to reform the WTO across its three functions – negotiating, monitoring, and dispute settlement.

Let me highlight a few of the MC12 outcomes. First of all, we have added a new agreement to the WTO rulebook, the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this development. The Agreement will help curb the depletion of fish stocks, of which 50% are currently overfished, and help secure the livelihoods of 260 million people who depend on marine fisheries.  It is the second full-fledged multilateral WTO agreement concluded since the WTO came into existence 28 years ago. And it’s the very first WTO agreement with environment sustainability at its core. The Agreement imposes new and binding disciplines on Members by prohibiting (i) subsidies contributing to IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing; (ii) subsidies regarding overfished stocks; and (iii) subsidies for fishing in underregulated high seas.  Its robust transparency/notification requirements will give us better data to target action as we negotiate even more rigorous obligations down the road.  And it also addresses the needs of developing countries and the least developed by creating a funding mechanism to help them implement their obligations and undertake fisheries management regimes to develop their industries sustainably.

In response to the public health crisis, WTO Members have reached two outcomes – a decision concerning intellectual property rights and a declaration concerning trade aspects, such as export restrictions, regulatory cooperation, and trade facilitation.

The long-awaited Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement is a tailored and targeted outcome that will help Members build up and diversify vaccine production capacity, providing a streamlined avenue to export to countries in need – either directly, or through international humanitarian programmes. It provides concrete flexibilities and guidance on the practical steps governments can take to diversify vaccine production and export. It is a real win for global health and the world’s most vulnerable.  It excludes, in a legally binding manner, those developing countries that have opted out because they already are able to manufacture competitively.

The Ministerial Declaration on the response to the pandemic and preparedness for future pandemics reflects and builds on the lessons learned by the WTO Members and the Secretariat during the pandemic. We have worked to catalogue best trade practices to respond to the pandemic and prepare for future ones. Our work includes:  (i) a list of trade-related bottlenecks and trade-facilitating measures on critical products to combat COVID; (ii) an indicative list of critical vaccine inputs; and (iii) a report on vaccines production and tariffs on vaccine inputs. We brought together government policymakers, international organizations, the private sector, and civil society to share information and coordinate responses.

To address the food crisis, WTO Members adopted a Declaration on the Emergency Response to Food Insecurity, which reaffirms the importance of not imposing WTO-inconsistent export prohibitions or restrictions and highlights the importance of promptly sharing information about policies that may affect trade and markets. In addition, Members have agreed not to impose export prohibitions or restrictions on foodstuffs purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the WFP. These are important steps to ensure that the world’s poorest have food on their plates.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in 2017, Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Simon Coveney said: “In today’s globalized world we must live in each other’s shelter, not shadow”. At MC12, our Members have shown that this is possible – that they can come together and muster the necessary political will to address emergencies and problems of global commons.

After we gavelled the MC12 outcomes last Friday at 5 am, people went to the WTO’s internal courtyard, which faces the Geneva lake. We saw a beautiful sunrise, which we like to think symbolizes the break of a new dawn for the WTO and multilateralism.

But that does not mean that our work is over.  First of all, we need to start immediately to work on the implementation of the package we just adopted. The Fisheries Agreement is a living agreement, with a sunset clause that requires Members to build on the existing Agreement and supplement it with further comprehensive disciplines. Likewise, the Decision on the TRIPS Agreement envisages that within six months from MC12, Members will decide whether to extend its scope to diagnostics and therapeutics.

We need to continue working on the issue we didn’t manage to deliver on – agriculture. All WTO Members agree on the vital importance of agriculture in their economies. But significant differences on public stockholding for food security purposes, domestic support, and market access prevented them from achieving consensus on a new roadmap for future work. To advance this work, Members have to find ways to reconcile their domestic policy goals with those of other Members in ways that enhance our collective wellbeing at the global level.

We also need to set the ball rolling on WTO reform. While everyone has agreed that the WTO needs reform, what it means is very much in the eye of the beholder. We – essentially our Members – must define the parameters. It is particularly important that we get a fully functional dispute settlement system because rules – whether they are old or new – have limited value if they cannot be properly enforced.

And then there are the newer issues to tackle.  For example, the WTO could start working towards creating common approaches to carbon pricing to contribute to addressing climate change.  We could negotiate an agreement to liberalize trade in green goods and services, to make such products and technologies less expensive and less cumbersome to trade.  We want to step up work on global rules for services as well as digital trade.  Addressing these topics is essential to maintaining and increasing the relevance of the WTO and multilateralism more broadly.

So, as you see, a lot of work lies ahead of us, and that is good news for you given that you are completing your Master’s programme focused on international trade.

Some of this Institute’s graduates were instrumental in making MC12 a success. We are proud of them, and soon it will be your turn to pick up the baton. I am confident that you will make us proud too.

As you close this chapter of your life and are about to embark on your career, allow me to offer you a piece of advice based on my own experience.  You don’t need to make all your career choices now, once and for all. Most likely, you will go through several iterations and reinventions in your lifetime, each of which will require different skills. I started in a law firm where the scorched-earth approach to litigation was common. When I worked for the Congress as Chief Trade Counsel, getting anything through Congress required building coalitions and consensus along and across party lines. And now, at the WTO, I see my role as a facilitator, listening to Members and helping them arrive at a meeting of the minds.

All these roles have required very different sets of skills. Therefore, I think the most important thing about the WTI programme is that, in addition to substantive knowledge, it has equipped you with skills that will be relevant in any workplace: exploring new issues, delivering under pressure, working as part of a team, advocating but still listening, and communicating with people from different countries and cultures.

You have acquired multidisciplinary skills to address the polycrisis. Good luck to you!

About WTO

The World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.

www.wto.org