26 November 2017
The WTO chief talks to Liam Halligan about protectionism and why he feels the UK will never be a minor player in trade
Roberto Azevedo is not your typical Brazilian. Quietly spoken, and instinctively cautious, the director general of the World Trade Organisation is a career diplomat to his wellmanicured fingertips. While a highly effective communicator – fluent in four languages – he belies the national stereotype for flair and flamboyance.
Azevedo, though, is a major figure on the global political stage – by far and away the most important trade diplomat on earth. As such, he’s been taking a keen interest in, and has some interesting thoughts on, the UK’s Article 50 negotiations with the EU.
Before getting to Brexit, though, does he feel the world economy is in danger of lurching into protectionism? There has been much fiery rhetoric regarding new tariffs and quotas of late, not least since Donald Trump entered the White House.
“There is a danger, yes, but if you look at the numbers, they don’t show we are in a protectionist phase,” says Azevedo, speaking at the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva. “Trade was extremely affected after the 2008 crisis, we had a big dip, but we have rebounded quite strongly.”
Certainly, after slumping in 2009, global merchandise trade has grown on average by 2.8pc a year since 2010. As growth has lately accelerated in the US and China, the WTO recently upgraded its 2017 forecast, and now expects a 3.6pc trade expansion this year. That’s still below the 4.7pc average since 1980, but would amount to the best performance since the global financial crisis.
“Trade growth is now picking up and coming back to normal,” says Azevedo. “Less than 5pc of global trade is affected by restrictive measures introduced since 2008 – so protectionism is part of the picture, but not a major part.” The world has learnt its lesson since the Thirties, he argues, when “around two thirds of the global trade disappeared”, leading to the Great Depression.
To read Liam Halligan’s interview with WTO chief Robert Azevedo in full, click here.