GENEVA, Switzerland : As Roberto Azevedo takes the helm of the World Trade Organization Sunday, observers say he must move swiftly to revive deadlocked trade talks and restore confidence in the body. “The new director general faces a big job. He needs to move rather quickly and assertively. He must be bold,” Sergio Marchi, Canada’s former trade minister and WTO ambassador, told AFP. Brazilian career diplomat Azevedo replaces Frenchman Pascal Lamy, who spent eight years at the head of the organisation that sets the rules for global commerce.
Reached by AFP three days before the handover, Azevedo said he would not be talking to reporters before he heads to St Petersburg next week for a G20 summit.
Lamy meanwhile told Swiss public radio last week that he planned to return home to Normandy in northern France on his first day off the job and “take the time to think.”
It’s understandable that the 66-year-old might need to catch his breath: he says he has logged some 450,000 kilometres (280,000 miles) of travel on average each year as head of 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.
Lamy, a former European Union trade commissioner, has overseen a vast expansion of the world trade body to 159 member countries — 11 more than eight years ago, with Russia a notable addition.
And it was under his leadership that the organisation was granted the right to take part in G20 summits.
However, little progress has been made towards reviving the so-called “Doha Round” of talks, launched in 2001 to craft a global accord on opening markets and removing trade barriers such as subsidies, excessive taxes and regulations, in order to harness international commerce to develop poorer economies.
But 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.
“Not much to show for his eight years, unfortunately,” Marchi said, lamenting that “the institution’s credibility has taken a heavy hit.”
At the same time, global trade has shifted over the past eight years to reflect the growing importance of developing economies.
—- Azevedo’s Bali challenge —-
As a sign of the times, almost all of the nine candidates that put their name in the hat to replace Lamy came from emerging nations.
Following a drawn-out nomination process, Azevedo, who had been Brazil’s ambassador to the WTO since 2008, was picked and observers say he will need to hit the ground running.
His first major challenge comes with the WTO’s next ministerial meeting, set for December in Bali, which is widely seen as decisive for the future.
If Azevedo succeeds at making progress in Bali, “we can increase the confidence of everyone that the WTO is still a place for doing meaningful business,” US ambassador to the WTO, Michael Punke.
But “if we fail at Bali, I think we confirm people’s worst fears that Geneva is not a place where very much is getting done today.”
But whatever the case, after December “the (trade) universe is going to look different,” Punke said.
Outgoing WTO chief Lamy has warned that “failure at Bali would have a long lasting damaging effect on the WTO.”
Azevedo, who has already appointed a new team of deputy directors, including the first Chinese national to ever hold such a position within the WTO, has hinted he will face the challenge head-on.
Shortly after his nomination in May, he vowed “to restore the WTO to the role and pre-eminence it deserves and must have.”
While acknowledging that Bali will be tough, he said success was essential.
“By solving the round, we would be taking the organisation away from paralysis,” he said.
Azevedo enjoys a reputation as a consensus-builder who knows the WTO system inside out.
“I think he has the ability to be that honest broker that we need,” Punke said.
The new WTO director general is set to present his official programme in Geneva to WTO’s executive, made up of ambassadors of all the member states, on September 9.
As for Lamy’s plans, he insisted this week to the Tribune de Geneve daily he had “no intention of retiring completely.”
Amid speculation that he might be eyeing a move into French politics, he told the paper he had “never refused to serve my country,” but insisted that he had “passed the age of chasing ministerial positions.”