Challenges await new WTO chief, Brazil's Roberto Azevedo

Brazilian career diplomat's appointment seen as a boost to BRICS and other emerging markets, but Doha Round and rule-setting tests persist

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 2:52am


As Brazilian Roberto Azevedo prepares to take the helm of the WTO, analysts say his victory in its leadership race is a clear sign of the clout of emerging nations.

He is also seen as having the potential to revive stalled World Trade Organisation talks, which aim to harness global commerce to give a boost to developing countries.

Career diplomat Azevedo, who is Brazil's WTO ambassador, was yesterday confirmed as the successor to Frenchman Pascal Lamy as director general of the rule-setting body for global commerce. "He was leading in every single round," Pakistan's ambassador Shahid Bashir, who chairs the WTO's ruling general council, said.

Bashir spoke after he and other officials steering the race to replace Lamy at the helm of the Geneva-based body briefed the WTO's 159 member nations about the nomination, which will not be made official until next week.

Lamy is to step down on September 1.

The United States welcomed the choice of Azevedo and said Washington "looks forward to working with him".

Observers underlined the importance of emerging giant Brazil winning. "Both for symbolic and tactical reasons, this is a great choice," said Kevin Gallagher of Boston University, an expert on globalisation and development.

Azevedo will face the tough task of trying to breath life into the WTO's stalled Doha Round of trade liberalisation talks, which were launched in 2001.

"Given that the WTO is a 'one-country-one-vote' institution, Western supporters figured that a deal endorsed by Brazil would spark the backing of BRICS and other emerging markets and of developing countries," said Gallagher.

"Brazil now must press the West to make sure that the first tact in any new round of trade talks eliminates distortionary policies in the industrialised world, like agricultural subsidies," he added.

Speaking before the election news was confirmed, Azevedo said he was convinced he had the mettle to reboot the WTO. "The multilateral trading system is weakened by a complete paralysis in the negotiations," he said.

"It's about making the system respond to the realities of today's world ... The only way to do this is to promote trade and trade liberalisation as an important component of development policies," he added.

"We're not going to do that unless we unclog the system," he insisted, adding that a "modulation of the ambition" was needed to allow progress.

Azevedo's rival final-round candidate, Mexican trade negotiator Herminio Blanco, is a 62-year-old economist with the reputation of a trade heavyweight. He was Mexico's negotiator for the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and served as a minister of commerce.

He and Azevedo repeatedly flagged up their broad support across a range of nations and economic levels, from the poorest to the richest, and had pitched a similar vision for breaking the deadlock over the Doha Round.

But 55-year-old Azevedo's insider status as an experienced negotiator and consensus-builder at the WTO appeared to have clinched the contest.

He has been Brazil's WTO ambassador since 2008, making him well placed to navigate the system to try to clear the Doha logjam at a crunch summit in Bali in December.

"We admire his extensive experience and deep familiarity with international trade institutions and processes on behalf of Brazil and the focus he has placed on consensus-building in Geneva," said Jake Colvin, vice-president of the US' National Foreign Trade Council.

"The next head of the WTO faces two critical tasks in steering the membership toward a successful outcome to the ministerial conference this December and building consensus toward a broader agenda to modernise trade rules for the digital age."

The Doha Round, launched at a summit in Qatar in 2001, aims to open markets and remove trade barriers such as subsidies, excessive taxes and regulations, in order to harness international commerce to help develop poorer economies.