March 28, 2018 / 12:03 AM / 6 months ago

WTO chief sees no sign of U.S. walking away from WTO

GENEVA (Reuters) - There is no sign that the United States is distancing itself from the World Trade Organization, and negotiations are underway to avert a global trade war, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo said in a BBC interview broadcast on Wednesday.

Roberto Azevedo, Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) addresses a news conference in New Delhi, India March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

U.S. President Donald Trump has launched a series of tariff-raising moves, upsetting allies and rivals alike.

Trump is also vetoing the appointment of WTO judges, causing a backlog in disputes and threatening to paralyse what is effectively the supreme court of trade. Some trade experts have begun asking if Trump wants to kill the WTO, whose 164 members force each other to play by the rules.

“I have absolutely no indication that the United Sates is walking away from the WTO. Zero indication,” Azevedo said in an interview on the BBC Hardtalk programme, according to excerpts released early by the BBC.

Last month Trump called the WTO a “catastrophe”, and complained the United States had only a minority of its judges. The next day Azevedo gently set him straight, noting that the United States had an unusually good deal, since it had always had one of the seven judges.

Asked if the WTO should be thinking about a Plan B without the United States, Azevedo told the BBC that he had not heard anything to suggest that such a situation was on the cards.

“Every contact that I have in the U.S. administration assures me that they are engaging,” he said.

The question of whether U.S. tariffs were legal could only be settled by a WTO dispute panel but the damage from such unilateral actions would be felt much more quickly as other countries retaliated, leading to a global trade war, he said.

“I don’t think we are there yet but we are seeing the first movements towards it, yes.”

Nobody believed it was a minor problem, including those in the U.S. administration, and people were beginning to understand how serious the situation was and what impact it could have on the global economy, Azevedo said.

“There are still negotiations ongoing,” he said. “Now that doesn’t mean that we should downplay that – you don’t want to be in the war. We want to avoid the war so everything that we can do to avoid being in that situation we must be doing at this point.”

Reporting by Tom Miles

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