Didier Chambovey: “You have to 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 luck and the unknown in the upbringing and career choices I made. My path was not traced and my interests were very varied. I have fully benefited from the open and efficient education system that Switzerland has created.”

Since 2016, Didier Chambovey has served as Swiss Ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). This is not everything. He has just been appointed President of the General Council, the WTO’s supreme body, where decisions on international trade rules are taken. As such, it is he who will lead the next WTO Ministerial Conference. Sent back twice, this will happen in June in Geneva.

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“My grades were bad”

It was in Sion that Didier Chambovey completed his scientific maturity. “I really didn’t feel comfortable and my math and physics grades were bad. I made up for it in foreign languages ​​and philosophy”, he does not hesitate to say in his office located in the heart of international Geneva. For his university studies in Lausanne, he opted for HEC and political economy in view of the good job prospects. This course increased his interest in demography, history and philosophy. These subjects shaped his thinking and accompanied him in his professional life.

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

A father of two, Didier Chambovey was particularly noticed in 2001 during the WTO ministerial conference in Doha. The Swiss delegation is headed by Pascal Couchepin, then Federal Councilor responsible for the Economy. It is a crucial meeting with critical issues on the menu: China’s accession to the WTO, intellectual property and access to medicines, the liberalization of agriculture and the end of the Multifiber Agreement. The latter, signed in 1974, when the countries of the South agreed to restrict their exports of textiles and clothing, is hotly contested, and it is up to the Swiss minister to negotiate a solution. It is a “sherpa” Didier Chambovey by Pascal Couchepin who breaks down walls and brings together the divergent positions between the countries of the North and those of the South. An agreement is reached and the Multifiber Agreement will be dismantled in 2006. “He showed his capacity as a patient, fierce and determined negotiator to obtain results”, recalls a Swiss diplomat who was present in Doha.

the clear path

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

Meanwhile, the Doha Round negotiations stalled and people began to doubt the relevance of the WTO. The China-US trade war is overshadowing that. Washington paralyzes the appellate body to resolve trade disputes between countries. But covid gives life to the organization. A debate on access to vaccines has been taking place since October 2020. Switzerland is in the spotlight; he refuses to lift patent protection and it’s Didier Chambovey who’s in front. “He is open and considerate, but he defends the interests of the Swiss industry”, comments Isolda Agazzi, spokesperson for Alliance Sud, a pressure group formed by Swiss NGOs. Starting with pharmaceuticals, as shown by its opposition to the patent waiver request. However, Switzerland has extraterritorial obligations to protect human rights, including the right to health of people living in developing countries.”

With his new role as Chairman of the WTO General Council, Didier Chambovey finds himself in a delicate position. “From now on, I don’t represent the Swiss position in the meetings I chair”, he stresses. I will work to find a compromise acceptable to the 164 member countries of the organization.” Its director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, made a point of honor reach an agreement at the Ministerial Conference in June.

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The health dossier will not be the only one to worry the president of the WTO General Council. States are also trying to end fishing subsidies. The negotiations have lasted twenty years. The objective is to combat illegal exploitation of the seas and overfishing. As far as agriculture is concerned, a controversial issue at the WTO, it will be a question of reaching agreement on an expanded work programme. It will also be necessary to reach a compromise to launch the WTO reform that many member countries demand, without, however, reaching an agreement on the objectives.

Due to his new position at the WTO, Didier Chambovey takes a neutral position in the negotiations. Therefore, he does not run the risk of making predictions about the perspectives of the various files or commenting on each other’s positions. He knows that his task will be difficult and “intends to make every effort to achieve tangible results at the ministerial conference in June”.

Profile

1961 Born in Zion.

1987 Enter the service of the Confederacy.

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

1992 Doctor in Economics, HEC Lausanne.

2011 Appointed delegate of the Federal Council for trade agreements and member of the board of SECO.

2016 Appointed Swiss Ambassador to the WTO and EFTA

2022 Appointed Chairman of the WTO General Council.

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