Mari Elka Pangestu Indonesia's minister of Tourism and Creative Economy and one of nine candidates to head the WTO.
She spoke to EurActiv Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti.
Considering the economic shift towards Asia, do you believe that your Indonesian background should bear importance in the WTO’s selection process?
Diversity is of course a desirable attribute for any organisation, but it goes without saying that competence remains the top priority. This is even more important for organisations like the WTO where negotiation abilities, leadership skills and experience in trade play a vital role. Most notably, I’ve had to bridge a lot of negotiations, while learning to find common grounds to develop better ties for international trade. More than geography, I have the ability to sit around a table with 159 members.
So what makes you an ideal candidate for the position?
I worked in international trade for over 25 years and have direct experience in the private and public sectors. With an academic background and 7 years of ministerial experience behind me, I can say that I’ve been involved in regional and international trade negotiations.
In terms of experience my record speaks for itself. At the ministry of trade I guided and helped develop Indonesia’s national trade policy, as well as coordinating major trade projects, like the G33. Such projects, involving the coordination of trade talks for multiple developing economies, allowed me to work on international trade issues, while trying to negotiate higher standards for all stakeholders involved.
The past 10 years have brought the Doha round to a deadlock. Is international trade developing in new and more unpredictable directions, without space for multilateral agreements?
I remain certain that the multilateral approach is the most beneficial for all partners involved, especially when we talk about smaller and developing countries.
We should also remember that the WTO is much more than the Doha round. The rules and frameworks set in place to regulate trade and protect against protectionism should not be forgotten.
A recent WTO survey shows that 95% of businesses believe that these rules help create a more predictable and certain environment for trade. Similarly, 75% say that it helps governments follow the appropriate rules. The next step for the WTO is multinational negotiations. They are essential and if we can get negotiations started with a practical approach I would opt for starting with the issues with the highest level of consensus.
More specifically, which steps would you take?
Inclusiveness still remains at the heart of the discussion, while concrete steps include maintaining high levels of transparency and improving trade facilitation. One step should definitely be a concrete reduction of administrative trade barriers, such as customs and other regulatory issues.
We need capacity building. You need to balance with development requirements and the least developed need to feel more included. For example, in earlier years, making benefits real for less developed countries has been a major challenge. Market opening has to be combined with donors and advanced countries, as well as other institutions.
We have seen an increase in bilateral trends, what is your take on that development?
There is a potential negative effect if bilateral agreements as discriminatory and substandard, as they might block others from entering trade talks and using standards below international levels.
In such cases, businesses are the first to lose out due to the increased costs of doing business. This is usually caused by the differences in market prices, regulatory costs, customs and rules of origin rules. Small companies in less developed countries are particularly disadvantaged, which is why it’s increasingly necessary to include more stakeholders in international trade agreements, securing fair levels for everyone.
It should nonetheless be said that it’s easier to negotiate with smaller groups and we seem to be facing a trend towards some types of regional negotiation. However, this should only be seen as a stepping stone for real multilateral agreement. The goal must be at the international level, comprising as many countries as possible.
With the surge of litigation cases isn't there a risk that the WTO remains nothing more than a trade policeman?
The WTO needs to guarantee the opening of economies worldwide, while making sure that its enforced properly. It’s both important to have a high degree of certitude and predictability when it comes to trade, but equally important is the legal process and the preparation part of the WTO, which makes sure that members play by the rules. This is something I advocate very strongly. Plurilateral and multilateral support to continue opening up economies and markets.
Europeans seem interested but concerned about the Trans-Pacific Partnership – what are your thoughts on these developments?
As with most projects, we will have to see what comes out of this. If the intentions are good and high standards are maintained, while membership is open for all, I can only support it. But if the TPP doesn’t fulfil the appropriate criteria then we have the same problem as with Doha, where there is social exclusion. In all regional attempts it’s important that coverage is comprehensive. Indonesia is not part of this yet, as it’s not ready for that level of agreement at this moment.
It’s important to remember that when we touch on individual topics, like agriculture, the discussion can quickly become very sensitive for certain countries. We should address the removal of trade distortions and subsidies internationally, not just regionally and bilaterally. It’s therefore hard for me to see that initiatives like the TPP, and the EU, can independently deal with such global issues.
If you get a mandate for 4 years, what will be your legacy?
The best-case scenario would be a successful conclusion of trade agreements started over 12 years ago, combined with a push in job growth and poverty reduction. It would also be great to address the new challenges, including climate change, food security, energy, regional initiatives and investment.
A memorable legacy would also include more outreach and communication with all stakeholders involved. The WTO is often regarded as an institution understood by lawyers and negotiators. Instead, it would be great to improve the public face of the organisation by improving ties with non-governmental organisations, businesses and the public in general.
For a successful WTO, I believe that capacity building and trade must create equality and growth, while maintaining high international standards and inclusiveness.