New home for the WTO

A bit of a spat seems to be brewing in Geneva between the Swiss ambassador to the WTO and the WTO Secretariat’s Director General, Pascal Lamy. The Swiss are telling the DG that under no circumstances should a small, “house-keeping” meeting of trade ministers planned for the middle of the year be transformed into a full WTO Ministerial Meeting such as the one held in Hong Kong in 2005, Cancun in 2003, or, more to the point, like the one held in Seattle in 1999.
The stories coming out of Geneva surrounding this issue are very interesting, and give rise to the possibility that the seat of the WTO might conceivably shift from Geneva to somewhere else. The Swiss, it seems, are not willing to honor the terms of their seat agreement with the WTO, and wont let it hold a full-blown ministerial meeting which is what the Marrakesh Agreement mandates every two years, as well as being arguably the kind of backdrop the WTO will need in order to make the breakthroughs that will allow it to formally conclude the Doha Round.
In addition, the people of the Canton of Geneva are about to vote in a historical referendum on whether or not to renew the WTO’s lease and allow it to maintain its secretariat in Geneva. The prospect of a Seattle-style meeting, with violent and disruptive protests is all it would take to turn the peace-loving residents of Geneva off from renewing the WTO’s lease. Besides, there are plenty of other international organizations and secretariats to keep the city alive, and which don’t attract the sort of unwanted attention the WTO seems to. So it’s actually quite conceivable now that the WTO Secretariat could move somewhere else in the near future. This obviously begs the question as to where, and for now, my money would be on Singapore, which was in any event touted as a possible host for the organization back in 1993 and 1994.
The reasons Singapore was ultimately not picked back at the end of the Uruguay Round were allegedly because the government of the city-state was not willing to allow enough waivers from its expensive Certificate of Entitlement scheme for cars, as well as the fact that too many GATT Contracting Parties felt it would have been a too radical departure from the preceding GATT way of doing things (the GATT Secretariat had been in Geneva for several decades).
But if Geneva is no longer able to provide the right backdrop and sufficient infrastructure for full-blown Ministerial meetings, the time might have come for a fundamental rethink.
In a way, the position of the Swiss is hard to understand, since they already play host to Davos. But in Switzerland, more than anywhere else, all politics is local, so the citizens of Geneva might end up having the final say.