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Trade – Growth Recovering but Restrictions on the Rise

Roberto Azevedo, director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), says this will be a pivotal year for global trade.

GENEVA, Mar 20 2014 (IPS) - The Bali Package, approved on Dec. 7 by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) members, was a historic achievement, representing a significant boost for trade, growth and development around the world. But its true significance lies in what it allows us to do next to conclude the Doha Development Agenda.

As we prepare to seize this opportunity in 2014, it is timely to look back on the challenges which emerged in the international trading environment in 2013 and to consider how members might respond.

The WTO report on developments in the international trading environment which was circulated on Jan. 31 aims to provide an assessment of a range of trade and trade-related issues and trends during the period from mid-October 2012 to mid-November 2013.

We must acknowledge that the stock of current trade restrictions and distortions continues to accumulate.

Put simply, it is a health-check on global trade and I think the diagnosis is cautiously positive although there are still reasons to be concerned about restrictive measures. We were not in great shape last year and we have picked up a few bad habits which we need to shake off. But overall trade growth is beginning to recover and we have a healthier outlook for 2014.

Let me mention some of the substantive findings of the report.

First, in terms of trade in goods, its volume expanded by less than 2.5 percent in 2013.

Growth projections for 2014 are much improved, hovering somewhere between 4 and 4.5 percent but this is still below the historical average since 1990 of 5.5 percent.

We are, of course, keeping a close eye on recent developments in the global economy and their impact on these projections.

Regarding developments in trade measures, there are two specific categories: trade remedy actions; and other trade measures.

Counting both categories together the report shows that overall 407 new restrictive measures were reported during the review period. This is compared to 308 in the same period a year earlier.

These new restrictive measures affect about 1.3 percent of world merchandise imports valued at 240 billion dollars.

Moreover, they add to the existing stock of restrictions and other impediments to the flow of international trade.

Looking specifically at trade remedy actions which were mostly anti-dumping and safeguard measures we saw 217 initiations of new trade remedy investigations. This covers around 0.2 percent of world imports, and compares to 138 terminations of either investigations or existing duties.

As was the case in 2012, therefore, more trade remedy actions were initiated than were terminated in 2013.Trade remedy activity is therefore clearly on the rise.

The number of new other trade measures also increased from 164 in the previous year to 190 during the review period.

The majority of such new measures were applied to imports mostly in the form of import tariff increases and customs procedures, covering around 1.1 percent of world goods imports.

Compared to the trend in new restrictive measures, the number of new trade-facilitating measures fell to 107 in 2013, well down from 162 a year earlier. These measures cover the equivalent of 1.4 percent of world merchandise imports which is approximately 258 billion dollars.

These measures, plus the number of terminations of trade remedy actions, represent little more than one-third of the total measures covered in the report.

This paints a rather unflattering picture of the ratio of trade restrictive measures to facilitation measures. We must acknowledge that the stock of current trade restrictions and distortions continues to accumulate.

I strongly believe we have a collective responsibility to attend to the risk posed by the cumulative effect of new and existing trade restrictions.

During the period covered by this report, members notified 23 new Regional Trade Agreements (RTAs) to the WTO, bringing the total number in force today to 250.

Negotiations on new RTAs are also continuing, in some cases between parties that collectively account for very substantial shares of world trade and GDP.

My view is that these initiatives are positive and are to be welcomed but they can only ever be one part of the wider picture. Agreements such as these cannot be sufficient on their own to ensure gains which can be realised on a global scale. In fact, the proliferation of regulations and standards could multiply costs rather than reduce them.

The multilateral trading system was never the only option for international trade negotiations. It has always co-existed with, and benefitted from, other initiatives. They are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

We must think about how the two processes – global and regional – can move forward together to reduce costs effectively and to curb protectionism.

As I have said before, 2014 is a pivotal year for the WTO. It is the year that we will implement our first negotiated outcomes and the year that the Doha Round is put back on track.

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