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Statement by Ambassador Punke at the WTO Trade Policy Review of Tunisia

Statement by Ambassador Punke at the WTO Trade Policy Review of Tunisia

Geneva, Switzerland
July 13, 2016

*For the Record*

Thank you, Chair.  The U.S. delegation warmly welcomes Tunisia’s Minister Hassen and the rest of the Tunisian delegation.  In addition, the United States would like to thank Tunisia, the Secretariat, and our excellent discussant for their work in compiling reports that have helped inform our understanding of Tunisia’s trade policy regime and practices since its last review in 2005.  

To say that Tunisia, and indeed the Middle East and North African (MENA) region more broadly, has become a different place since 2005 would of course be an epic understatement.  The revolutions and other upheavals which have swept the MENA region in recent years got their start, after all, in Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution of 2011.  Tunisians have earned the respect and admiration of the world for persevering through a tumultuous political period and still producing the widely praised new constitution of 2014.

And yet, as the Secretariat’s report notes, in trade and investment policy matters, there remain considerable challenges for the Tunisian government to tackle.  The Government continues to face a massive task of reforming and introducing new legislation in a broad range of economic areas, so it is understandable that some prioritization has to be made.  We are convinced, however, that trade and investment can and should play a vital role in Tunisia’s economic future, so we encourage our Tunisian friends to address needs in these areas as soon as possible.

As the Secretariat’s report indicates, Tunisia has been able to retain, despite the upheavals of recent years, its status as an advanced emerging economy in significant part due to its long standing role as a trade and investment hub, particularly vis a vis Europe, and its well-educated workforce.  However, various impediments to growth in exporting, including overly complex regulations, the lack of diversification in actors permitted to participate in trade, and cumbersome customs procedures, have prevented Tunisian companies from reaping greater gains from foreign trade.  Moreover, the Secretariat notes that continued heavy involvement of state-owned enterprises in various areas of economic activity has likely held back development of Tunisia’s export competitiveness, even though Tunisia is internationally recognized for the export of certain products, such as olive oil and dates. 

Tunisia’s participation in the WTO system has also been modest, since Tunisia remains outside the network of Members who have joined the Government Procurement and Information Technology Agreements; we are however pleased that Tunisia has indicated its intention to accept the Trade Facilitation Agreement and hope notification of its formal ratification will come very soon. Being outside the large and growing group of WTO Members who have ratified the TFA sends a discordant signal.

Since 2005, the United States has worked closely with the Tunisian government and private sector to enhance the bilateral trade and investment relationship, especially under the auspices of the 2002 U.S.-Tunisia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).  In the wake of the revolution of 2010-11, the United States quickly sought to re-energize the TIFA consultation process, with the aim of identifying and addressing significant issues in the areas of market access, services and investment, and intellectual property rights protection, which could have a positive impact on commercial ties between our countries. 

We have been pleased to see Tunisian producers enjoying growing success via participation in the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, and are committed to working with our Tunisian colleagues to help Tunisia maximize the benefits it can derive from GSP.

Tunisia represents the potential for positive change in the MENA region that will lift people out of economic malaise and political turmoil into prosperity for all members of society.  While Tunisia indeed holds that potential, reforms in a number of areas would promote foreign business interest in the Tunisian market.  Many of the questions we pose today reflect our desire to better communicate to U.S. private sector operators the opportunities and challenges that await them in Tunisia.  For example, we seek in particular additional information on various aspects of Tunisia’s investment regime, which the government has been attempting to reform for some time. 
Customs issues will be key to the smoother operation of Tunisia’s trading infrastructure, as will Tunisia’s approach to its government procurement practices.  The future direction of the agriculture sector will be critical for the overall development of Tunisia’s economy, and trade will be an important dimension to that development.  In addition, since the United States has always advocated for strong intellectual property protections as essential to creating a business-friendly economy, and thereby attracting needed foreign investment, we seek greater clarity with respect to a number of Tunisian policies in this area. 

In closing, it is our judgment that Tunisia remains on the cusp of advancing to a more robust integration into the global trading system, if the government and the private sector continue to demonstrate the same will that has allowed Tunisia to come so far, through so much, since the revolution   The United States remains ready to work with Tunisia to strengthen our cooperation both in the WTO and bilateral arenas. 

Thank you.