Discours du ministre Reynders au "Graduate Institute Geneva"

(Ce discours a été fait en anglais)



Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful to the Graduate Institute for organising today’s event with the Permanent Mission of Belgium, and in close collaboration with WTO and ILO. I also wish to thank both Directors Generals for their participation.

Let me also take this opportunity, Mr Azevêdo, dear Roberto, to congratulate you on your re-election earlier today at the helm of the World Trade Organization. I wish you but success for your second term!

Today’s topic - “Making Trade More Inclusive” - is indeed very timely, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this issue with you.

In recent years, we have observed a sentiment increasingly critical of free trade, at times tilting towards protectionist tendencies. For some, free trade, and more generally globalisation, incites feelings of frustration and sometimes even resentment. These feelings are sometimes exacerbated by fears for job losses, worsening working conditions or lower quality of life. Free trade, it is argued, favours primarily large multinational companies rather than small and medium-sized enterprises, workers or consumers, and undermines the ability of States to regulate in the public interest.

These feelings have fuelled legitimate concerns about the implications of trade agreements in many countries, including in Belgium. While trade has brought overwhelming benefits to our societies as a whole, it is true that free trade can cause negative effects. Some communities and sectors indeed lose out in the face of international competition and open markets.

Today, international trade is navigating unchartered waters. Think of the discussions leading to BREXIT, and the wake of the US election campaign.

In times of uncertainty, the importance of a continued strong commitment to a rule-based global trade system cannot be over-stated.

To cite the example of Belgium: as an open economy, Belgian citizens’ welfare heavily depends from our ability to preserve open economic borders. Belgium exports more than 80% worth of its GDP. 4 out of 5 people in Belgium directly or indirectly depend on international trade. According to ILO data, one-third of all jobs in the European Union are directly or indirectly related to global supply chains.

It is, however, equally essential that these legitimate concerns among public opinion about the possible negative effects of free trade are taken seriously, and are adequately addressed. In a highly interdependent and globalised world economy, the stakes to ensure our populations’ support to open economic borders are tremendous.

So, this begs the question:

How can these legitimate concerns be addressed?

Or, to put it differently:

How can we make trade more inclusive?

I see four major elements.

First, it is essential to maximize transparency of trade negotiations and agreements. Recent discussions in Belgium in relation to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada, or CETA, have underlined the need to distinguish facts from populist rhetoric in public debate. Maximal transparency is an essential precondition to be able to make such a distinction, and to support an informed and rational public debate.

Second, it is critical to make the positive effects of trade agreements real and tangible to our citizens. One of the most effective ways of achieving such an impact is by ensuring that trade agreements benefit small and medium sized enterprises. In Belgium, as in many countries around the world, SMEs constitute the first source of stable job creation. In this context, I welcome the recent entry into force of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement which is set to benefit SME’s, by cutting back “red tape” and simplifying export and import processes.

Third, it is important to ensure a level playing field that allows for fair international competition. Unfair trade practices, such as dumping, disrupt local industries and their workers, and are a major source of resentment. This is why Belgium fully supports the European Union’s ongoing efforts to modernize its Trade Defence Instruments and review its anti-dumping methodology. These contribute to upholding public support to open markets.

And last but not least, a fourth major element is the need for trade and social policies to be pursued within well-functioning and properly regulated markets. Belgium is a strong proponent to introduce sustainable development clauses in trade agreements. These include trade-related labour provisions which can ensure economic growth while minimising socio-economic costs and tackling inequalities.

Both the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been extensively working on these issues. Let me cite two very interesting documents in this respect:

  • the 2011 joint project of the International Labour Office and the Secretariat of the World Trade Organization “Making Globalization Socially Sustainable”, and
  • the 2016 ILO study on the “Assessment of labour provisions in trade arrangements”, which will be discussed in the second segment of today’s event.

These studies make a valuable contribution to the elaboration of policy recommendations aimed at improving future trade agreements. Indeed, Belgium is committed to the idea that trade policy is an important tool to support our common values and promote balanced growth and sustainable development.

The potential contribution of trade policy to sustainable development has, moreover, been reaffirmed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the SDGs, which will guide global action for the next 15 years. The European Union and its Member States have been actively advocating the integration of concrete sustainable development objectives into international trade.

It is now time to make these objectives a reality.

There is, first of all, the multilateral level. WTO continues to offer the most appropriate platform to advance ambitious and balanced trade agreements. Further progress depends on the ability of the WTO to monitor and implement existing agreements, but also upon its capacity to produce new ones. Belgium hopes for a successful outcome of the upcoming eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December.

For Belgium, it is important that WTO ensures that its activities continue to be consistent with the work undertaken by ILO.

Moreover, we must also keep working to overcome the reluctance of some to include labour provisions in multilateral trade agreements. As long as a multilateral breakthrough on the inclusion of environment and labour provisions continues to remain a challenge, it is all the more important to include these provisions in other agreements: plurilateral – but also in bilateral agreements and unilateral arrangements. That is why, in support of multilateral efforts, the EU promotes sustainable development in a bilateral and unilateral trade arrangements.

This approach aims to support the work of specialised multilateral organisations - such as ILO - by referring to international conventions and standards, and by providing the possibility to seek the advice of these organisations. 

ILO’s study on labour provisions in trade agreements is based upon an analysis of over two hundred sixty trade agreements, concluded by both industrialised and emerging economies. The study is a valuable contribution to this debate.

As far as the EU is concerned, we are committed to upholding the core labour standards of the ILO, having high labour standards in domestic laws, enforcing those laws, and not undermining labour standards for commercial advantage. These provisions also include the possibility to consult social partners and civil society organisations, including trade unions, to scrutinise the impact of the agreement on workers, and to set-up monitoring mechanisms and civil society dialogues.

I am glad to say that this is very much in line with the elements identified as factors for effectiveness in the ILO study. 

However, while the inclusion of sustainable development provisions in trade agreements is commendable, it is not sufficient: we should also work towards their effective implementation.

The discussion on the effectiveness of environment and labour provisions should not be reduced to a simplistic discussion on the threat of sanctions. Linking sanctions to a lack of implementation of such provisions may seem like a promising approach. However, in reality, sanctions often fail to effectively support the ongoing process to achieve and enforce multilateral environment and labour standards. 

That is why the EU calls for a cooperative approach in its trade agreements in support of international standards and organisations like ILO. Sustainable development chapters in EU trade agreements offer opportunities to advance social rights and to strengthen the involvement of civil society in the follow-up mechanisms of trade agreements.

But it appears that this potential is sometimes only partially achieved, and that the implementation of these chapters can be further improved. In this context, Belgium values the work of ILO to allow focussing our resources better in order to enhance the effectiveness of labour provisions in trade agreements.

Belgium is currently examining how to better implement labour and environment provisions in EU trade agreements. I will limit myself to a few ideas:

  • First, associating more closely multilateral organisations – such as ILO – in the implementation phase. This will allow to reinforce the monitoring part of the agreement, but also to empower local actors with greater expertise.
  • Second, improving the awareness by local actors of the monitoring mechanisms by ensuring better financial and administrative support, as well as providing feedback on how their contributions have been taken into account.
  • Third, enhancing the policy coherence between trade and development silo’s. In recent decades, trade has demonstrated to be a powerful tool to save millions of people from poverty in developing countries.  But its contribution to development can be further improved through interlinkages between development objectives, trade regulations, and the multilateral value-based agenda.

To conclude, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to reiterate Belgium’s strong belief in the promise of enhancing the inclusiveness of trade. For Belgium, this promise needs to respond directly to citizens’ legitimate concerns about the possible negative effects of trade agreements.

Trade opens the door to a wider dialogue; it brings people and nations closer together: it continues to be a force for good. 

Today, more than ever, I am convinced that an effective multilateral, rule-based trading system that ensures fair competition contributes to reducing economic uncertainty.

It remains a powerful incentive to achieve inclusive growth and sustained job creation

It is our common responsibility to continue using this leverage to actively shape globalisation to the benefit of all – current and future generations!