Didier Chambovey: ‘You must love your country without falling into complacency’

Born in 1961 to a working-class family in Sion, Didier Chambovey never imagined as a child that his professional career would lead him to represent his country on the front lines of economic diplomacy. “There was an element of chance and the unknown in the education and career choices I made. My path was not mapped out and my interests were very varied. I have taken full advantage of the open and efficient education system that Switzerland has set up.”

Since 2016, Didier Chambovey has been the Swiss Ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). That’s not all. He has just been appointed chairman of the General Council, the highest body of the WTO where decisions are made regarding the rules of international trade. As such, he will lead the next WTO ministerial conference. Returned twice, this takes place in Geneva in June.

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“My grades were bad”

In Sion Didier Chambovey completed his scientific maturity. “I wasn’t really in my element and my math and physics grades were bad. I made up for it in foreign languages ​​and philosophy,” he says without hesitation in his office in the heart of international Geneva. For his university studies in Lausanne, he chose HEC and political economy with a view to good job prospects. This course increased his interest in demographics, history and philosophy. These subjects shaped his thinking and guide him in his professional life.

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This started in 1987. He was admitted to the civil service, within the Federal Office for External Economic Affairs, which later became the State Secretariat for the Economy (SECO). At the age of 26, the young diplomat comes to the fore in the Uruguay Round negotiations. This cycle to further liberalize trade flows had been initiated a year earlier by the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), the predecessor of the WTO. “I love public service and it’s motivating to represent and defend national interests,” he says. For that you have to love your country without falling into a certain complacency.

Didier Chambovey, a father of two, was particularly notable in 2001 at the WTO ministerial conference in Doha. The Swiss delegation is led by Pascal Couchepin, then a federal councilor in charge of economics. It is a crucial meeting with critical topics on the menu: China’s accession to the WTO, intellectual property and access to medicines, the liberalization of agriculture and the end of the Multifibre Agreement. The latter, signed in 1974 when the countries of the South agreed to limit their exports of textile and clothing products, is hotly contested, and the Swiss minister is responsible for negotiating a solution. It is a Didier Chambovey “sherpa” by Pascal Couchepin who breaks down the walls and brings together the divergent positions between the countries of the north and those of the south. An agreement is reached and the Multifibre agreement will be dismantled in 2006. “He showed his capacity as a patient, fierce and determined negotiator to get results,” recalled a Swiss diplomat present in Doha.

The clear path

From that moment on, the way was clear for the Swiss diplomat. After a stint with the Economic Free Trade Association (EFTA), then in Bern at Seco, where he joined management in 2011, Didier Chambovey returned to Geneva in 2016 as Swiss Ambassador to the WTO. During his career, he worked with several federal trade advisers: Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, Pascal Couchepin, Joseph Deiss, Johann Schneider-Ammann and the current proprietor, Guy Parmelin.

Meanwhile, the Doha Round negotiations have stalled and the relevance of the WTO is even beginning to question. The trade war between China and the US overshadows it. Washington paralyzes the appellate body to settle trade disputes between countries. But the covid is bringing the organization back to life. Since October 2020, there has been a debate about access to vaccines. Switzerland is in the spotlight; it refuses to lift patent protection and it is Didier Chambovey who is at the forefront. “He is open and considerate, but he defends the interests of Swiss industry,” said Isolda Agazzi, spokesman for Alliance Sud, a pressure group made up of Swiss NGOs. Starting with pharmaceuticals, as evidenced by its opposition to the patent derogation request. However, Switzerland has extraterritorial obligations to protect human rights, including the right to health of people living in developing countries.”

Didier Chambovey finds himself in a delicate position in his new role as President of the General Council of the WTO. “For the time being, I do not represent the Swiss position in the meetings I chair,” he emphasizes. I will work towards a compromise acceptable to the 164 member countries of the organization.” The director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, made it a point of honor to reach an agreement at the June ministerial conference.

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The health file will not be the only thing that will concern the President of the General Council of the WTO. States are also trying to end fisheries subsidies. Negotiations have been going on for twenty years. The aim is to combat the illegal exploitation of the seas and overfishing. On agriculture, a controversial topic at the WTO, it will be a matter of agreeing a comprehensive work programme. It will also be necessary to work out a compromise to launch the WTO reform that many member states are calling for, but without agreeing on the targets.

Due to his new position at the WTO, Didier Chambovey takes a neutral position in the negotiations. He therefore does not run the risk of making predictions about the prospects of the various files or of commenting on each other’s points of view. He knows his task will be arduous and “intends to do everything possible to deliver tangible results at the June ministerial conference”.

Profile

1961 Born in Zion.

1987 Enters the service of the Confederacy.

1991 Marriage to Christiane, then birth of her two children, Morgane in 1994 and Matthieu in 1997

1992 PhD in Economics, HEC Lausanne.

2011 Appointed delegate to the Federal Council for Trade Agreements and member of SECO’s management.

2016 Appointed Swiss Ambassador to the WTO and EFTA

2022 Appointed Chairman of the General Council of the WTO.

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