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.