No meeting with Trump, but WTO chief sees U.S. ‘sense of urgency’ on trade reforms

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – World Trade Organization Director General Roberto Azevedo said on Tuesday he would not meet with President Donald Trump during his current visit to Washington, but believed U.S. officials shared a sense of urgency about reforming the global trade body.

Azevedo said he was in constant contact with the U.S. Trade Representative’s office and could return to Washington if a meeting with Trump or other officials was scheduled.

“There is a sense of urgency here as well,” Azevedo told a conference hosted by the Washington International Trade Association, underscoring the need for structural changes to the WTO to reflect global economic developments, including the rise of and emergence of the digital economy.

Azevedo said Trump had made clear during a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month that he wanted to see the WTO change, and said he had been invited to Washington to discuss how deep such reform would be.

But Azevedo said he would not meet with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer or Trump during this visit to attend the conference.

“I came here for this event. It doesn’t mean that I can’t come back. I need somebody to tell me – ‘This is the time,'” he said, adding that U.S. officials were politically engaged, but it was necessary to “transform those ideas into concrete action.”

Lighthizer’s office had no immediate comment on Azevedo’s visit, or a Bloomberg report the United States is considering a plan to withdraw from a WTO government procurement agreement worth $1.7 trillion if the pact is not changed.

The White House also had no immediate comment.

The European Union, China and 15 other WTO members last month agreed to create a temporary mechanism to settle trade disputes after U.S. action rendered the WTO incapable of acting as the umpire of global trade.

Washington froze the so-called appellate body, which acts as a supreme court for international trade, by blocking appointments for over two years. Two of the body’s three members completed their terms in December, leaving it unable to issue rulings.

Azevedo described his meeting with Trump at Davos as “superficial,” as was generally the case when meeting state leaders, but said the U.S. president was clearly convinced about the need to reform the WTO.

“The perception is that there is a need to change what we have and that we need to do it,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown)

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