WTO chief agrees on need to reform organisation

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Roberto Azevedo, Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) during a meeting at the OECD ministerial council meeting on 'Refounding Multilateralism' in Paris, France, on Wednesday. — EPA

THE head of the World Trade Organization agreed Thursday with a call from French President Emmanuel Macron for reform, saying he saw a need to "strengthen" the body and "make it more effective".

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo has in recent months warned that the US-led trend of erecting new trade barriers and saber-rattling on commerce could hamper global growth.

He met with France's Macron on Wednesday to discuss "current global trade tensions" and the "central role of the WTO in safeguarding the stability and predictability of the trading system," the organization said in a statement.

"It was comforting to hear what he said and I agree entirely with his assessment on the need to strengthen the WTO and to make it more effective in addressing the trade challenges of today," Azevedo said in the statement.

The WTO chief, who has been at the helm of the global trade body since 2013, said he stood "ready to support him and all WTO members in exploring ways to make the WTO work better for all."

His comments came after Macron on Wednesday told officials at the annual forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris that he wanted talks on overhauling the WTO.

Macron voiced frustration after weeks of intense EU lobbying to remain exempted from the metal tariffs announced by US President Donald Trump in early March.

Officials have indicated they see little chance that Trump will continue exempting EU companies from the duties of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum. "Our task is to find a collective response," Macron said, adding that "only a reformed WTO can give us this framework."

Meanwhile, the WTO is being slowly strangled to death, a retiring trade judge whose replacement has been blocked by the United States, said in his farewell speech, delivering a thinly-veiled rebuke to the Donald Trump administration.

Ricardo Ramírez-Hernández served two terms as a judge on the WTO's Appellate Body, which acts as the final court for trade disputes between countries. Since his departure last year, the United States has been blocking the process to replace him and other judges, throwing the WTO into crisis.

"This institution does not deserve to die through asphyxiation," Ramírez-Hernández said. "You have an obligation to decide whether you want to kill it or keep it alive."

In a speech introducing Ramirez-Hernandez, WTO Deputy Director-General Karl Brauner said there was "no movement in sight" to unblocking appointments.

"This is frightening," he said, adding that it was an illusion to believe the WTO could manage without its appeals judges. It remained to be seen if the WTO was an achievement of civilization or only a temporary experiment, he added.

The Geneva-based World Trade Organization, founded in 1995, is the final arbiter for trade disputes between its 164 member economies and the main global forum for discussing trade.

Its appellate body normally has seven members, but because of the Trump administration's veto on new hires, only four of the posts are now filled. One judge is due for reappointment in September and two are due to leave next year. Three judges are needed to hear any case, which means the court will cease to function altogether next year unless Trump lifts his refusal to fill vacancies.

Trump and his trade advisers take a tough and unorthodox line on what they see as "unfair" treatment by the trade body.

Ramírez-Hernández did not point fingers directly at any particular country for the crisis, saying all WTO members were responsible for dealing with problems. "It seems to me that the crisis we now face could have been avoided if it had been addressed face-on, as it began to escalate," he said. — Agencies