Interview with Ambassador (em.) Pierre-Louis Girard

Laurent Chrzanovski: The WTO (World Trade Organization)  is an institution  that  everyone talks about,  but few know  what  it really deals with. You have   been   the   chairman   of numerous   working groups, particularly those who watched over China’s adherance  to the Organization.  Please explain the role of the WTO nowadays  and in relation with its predecessor GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).

Pierre-Louis Girard: The World Trade Organization has three main functions.

The first is to provide a framework of stable and predictable  rules for actors involved in the international trade of goods and services.

The second  is, thanks to trade negotiations  (like negotiating  cycles, such as the Uruguay Round or as it is now the Doha Round,  or in the special negotiations on a subject or specific sector), to widen the liberalization of trade in goods and services, or to develop the new rules that will apply to these exchanges.

The third is to provide  its members a dispute settlement   system,  a system where a country can appeal each time it estimates that one of its partners violated the rules of the system or caused damage to its interests. In  many respects,  the WTO is considered  a partial development   and achievement  of the objectives  set by the negotiators  of the General Agreement  on Tariffs  and Trade (GAT T ) in 1947. Therefore,  one of the goals that was impossible to reach  originally at that time,  covering the service sector, was partly implemented in the Uruguay Round and during the financial services negotiations  that took place  immediately  after this round.  Also,  an agreement  on the protection  of intellectual property, applied to goods and services,  has broadened the field covered  by the international trade rules.

Laurent Chrzanovski: What are the main working areas of WTO, or at least the categories of products and trade that it has as priority?

Pierre-Louis  Girard:  The  main  working   areas have not  changed fundamentally, because everything  about trade conditions  constitutes “work in progress”, as the Anglo-Saxons would say. The efforts to liberalize the trade of agricultural  products  and manufactured products  remain a central component of the WTO’s  work.  Moreover,  since the original establishment of   the   organization, the   government procurement discipline, and also the environmental cross-border aspects of trade have gained a new dimension.  Finally, for several years already, the WTO and its members are focusing on the development of procedures and programs of support with regard  to matters  of facilitating  trade and simplifying customs procedures and the mobility of goods, focusing on developing countries and their benefit out of it.

Laurent Chrzanovski: The Cancún Summit marked the commencement of open hostilities from several anti-globalization movements, where the WTO was one of the main scapegoats, but also the target of criticism from several governments. Why?

Pierre-Louis Girard: Both, GAT T, and the WTO,  have always been the targets of complaints. These were sometimes  very violent, as they were during the Uruguay  Round, for example, the protests of European  (and particularly Swiss), Japanese and Korean farmers. Moreover, all negotiations have been accompanied  by demonstrations,  at certain moments and in different  dimensions, since the late 1980s, organized  by NGOs from developed and developing countries, with the desire to support the latter, or at least for what the NGOs believed would represent their interests.

One of the highlights  of the anti-globalization movement  has been clearly reached  at the 1999 Ministerial Conference  in Seattle,  where an alliance of  NGOs in  favor of  developing countries,   of  environmental protection  movements,  of turtles  and seals,  as well as representatives of US-based  AFL-CIO  syndicates denouncing “wage dumping” from  the developing countries, have managed to block any kind of activity for two days in Seattle. The real cause of the failure of the Seattle conference was that the WTO members, including important   industrialized  countries, did not reach  an agreement,  even a minimum  one, on which to start negotiating.

Concerning Cancún,  the  same  phenomenon of  divergences on agriculture    between important  industrialized members,    especially between the European  Union and the United States of America,  has allowed various developing countries members,   to  take advantage of the promises  made to them two years  ago in Doha by the same US and European Union, especially since Doha Round is  considered a “development round”.

Laurent  Chrzanovski: While many  states  now  favor  region-based meetings and groups, a nation-state alliance or a specific product, how do you explain that the WTO remains at the core of the debate and that macro-regional powers, such as Russia, have fervently negotiated their accession, which took place only in 2012 (9 years after Cancún)?

Pierre-Louis   Girard:   It    is   very  simple  because  the  legal  basis representing  the WTO agreements  is the most developed, multilateral, stable and effective basis on which countries can rely in order to develop their trade / exchanges and to protect themselves against the prey actions of their trading partners. When new countries, such as China, Russia and the former Soviet republics  in particular, joined WTO, a new dimension was given to their status as an independent nation, from the point of view of international law and as an active player in its development. This does not always match with the view of the prior macro nation.

Laurent  Chrzanovski: Today, with  the  exception  of raw materials, finished  products  are increasingly  hybrid  and  the  percentage   of products  having  a  reception  / transmission   function  is increasing exponentially. Does this data not endanger the negotiations based on “services” and “products” as they were before the Internet of Things?

Pierre-Louis Girard: This phenomenon  is nothing  new.  Most goods exports  have been accompanied in the past by service  items.  Consider installing a turbine, after-sales service of textile machinery, etc. The fact that services may come up as a parallel export to that of the good itself, this does not change the fact that they both form a whole. Likewise, if you buy a car today, you probably bought the opportunity to simultaneously use two services that are integrated in the acquisition: GPS and Bluetooth!

Laurent Chrzanovski: A few,  but  important countries  (including the  US and  China) are calling upon  the WTO to eradicate the obstacles  these products face, when countries refuse them under the national security exception – as defined in Article XXII of the GATT (30 October 1948!), then  reproduced in 1994 (TRIPS Article 73) and about to be reproduced, almost  unaltered  in  the  GATS (Article 14bis.). Do you think that the WTO will rule on “products” that include  both   multiple   services  and   the   physical product itself?

Pierre-Louis Girard: The article on national security is  a  fundamental    article,  but it  is easy to  use and abuse (think about the measures  taken by the Reagan administration against   Nicaragua).  Its     invocation usually  involves  considerations   whose validity  is not easy to assess.  I  therefore,  do not see either the WTO members, or the Dispute Settlement  Body, willing  to show boldness in the matter.

Laurent Chrzanovski: How do you explain the lack of  adjustment of  the  WTO to  the “digital era” we are living in now? Do you think it is wise to stick to the concept  of “goods”, “services”, “agricultural and industrial products”, “products” and “intellectual property rights affecting  trade”, without  opening  a special window  for valuable  goods  or services with automated / digital / trans-state added value?

Pierre-Louis Girard: The current legal bases are clear and strong.  For a possible development  of a special window for  “automated  /  digital /  trans-state  added value products or  services”,  it  would be  necessary for  the members to agree  in advance  on what these products are in fact and on  the fact that the legal provisions  of both, international  law (including  those of the WTO, in particular) and national law (the law on data protection, the law on respect for privacy, etc.) are clearly insufficient.

Laurent Chrzanovski: The best anecdote during the marathon discussions you moderated?

Pierre-Louis Girard: The first thing that comes to mind is a visit I paid  to the Minister of Chinese Foreign Trade,  during the late 1990s.  When I  walked   into her office, she asked: “So, Mr. Ambassador   Girard, what do you think about China today?”. When hearing this,  I could not help but exclaim, pushing the note:  “It is in full wild capitalism!”. And she could not help but laugh hard,   acknowledging  this way the  pathway already completed with regard to the 1988 reforms, the year of setting up the Working Group on China’s  accession to GAT.

Laurent Chrzanovski | Professor at the Doctoral and Postdoctoral School of Social Sciences at the University of Sibiu (Romania)

Other Magazines