“I’ll stick with the government position. We hope we can get a withdrawal agreement that allows for a smooth transition to a future economic partnership with the EU. With a withdrawal agreement we can legally leave the EU in March, remain within the Single Market, and remain within the EU Customs Union, then we have a period during which to negotiate the future economic partnership. That is by far the most secure outcome and that which everyone is working towards.” However, he adds that “as responsible public servants, from day one we have always planned for different scenarios... The only responsible approach has been to ensure that in the WTO, we are ready for a range of scenarios, including a no-deal Brexit”.
Staines describes his career path as “slightly unusual”. He did an economics degree at the University of Cambridge then qualified as a chartered accountant – winning the Hewitt prize. He spent five years at Deloitte in the UK and Australia, specialising in corporate finance, before taking a “detour” into diplomacy. In between he was specialist advisor to the UK’s influential cross-party Treasury Select Committee, after which he took a job as a senior executive in a global mining company. He joined the Foreign Office Economics Unit as the financial crash was about to hit in 2008 – “an interesting time” – and over the next eight years held various roles there, including first secretary, British Embassy to the United States, and then counsellor and head of WTO Section, UK Mission to the United Nations, Geneva.
As with his arrival at the Foreign Office during the crisis in 2008, Staines is working with the WTO at what could also be described as an “interesting time”. It has never had a more prominent place in the UK national consciousness. Before the EU referendum result most people, unless they worked in trade, finance or business, had likely never heard of the WTO or had only a passing understanding of its purpose. Now it is mentioned daily.
There are some misconceptions about what role it fulfils, however. It has been claimed, repeatedly, that if the UK fails to reach a deal the UK could revert to rules set by the WTO, as that’s how it currently trades with the rest of the world. This is incorrect. As the BBC’s Reality Check service points out, with regard to tariffs, the UK trades with 24 countries and territories under WTO rules alone.
“With 68 others it has, as part of the EU, free trade agreements, either fully or partly in place, which all enable trade on better terms,” adds Staines. While some European political leaders have cooled towards the UK, at least in public, since Brexit negotiations began, Staines says that from his on-the-ground experience in Geneva “a lot of WTO members are interested, intrigued, to see the UK take back its seat”.
He continues: “They have their own economic interests in the UK and in the European Union and they want to ensure there’s no disruption that harms those. They are following the Brussels negotiations closely. In many cases they want to see a smooth transition for their own investments into the EU. “At the moment, in the WTO, the EU speaks for the UK. It speaks for its member states. Other WTO members know that the UK is a true trade liberal. We believe in trade, in the benefits of trade. We have a long history as a committed multilateralist that believes in the importance of a rules-based system. And we’re a pretty big economy. The UK taking back its seat will add to the discussion.”
Away from Brexit, the WTO is also experiencing something of a political crisis. The US has long-standing concerns that the WTO’s dispute settlement system has become “too activist”. President Donald Trump and his administration believe the WTO is biased against them. Trump, who is engaged in a trade war with China, views some of the WTO’s recent rulings as pro-China. The US holds significant leverage: if it was to pull out, the WTO would likely collapse. Following the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires, reportedly at Trump’s insistence, the agreed communiqué stated that the multilateral trading system was “currently falling short of its objectives and there is room for improvement. We therefore support the necessary reform of the WTO to improve its functioning.”
The rise of protectionism is front and centre of Staines’ agenda. A recent survey by KPMG found two thirds of UK business leaders think a return to territorialism is the greatest threat to their future growth prospects, while 55% of international business leaders agree. In May last year IMF head Christine Lagarde warned of a slide into protectionism. The European Central Bank recently reported that it expects the global economy to slow next year as rising protectionism curbs trade growth. “The protectionism debate has been there for a long time and really beefed up after the financial crisis, but I think the US has clearly come with a number of particular concerns about the WTO in recent years,” says Staines.
“That has reinvigorated, or frankly launched, a new multilateral effort on WTO reform. That captures protectionism but also some concerns the US have got over the appellate body – where they have blocked the appointment of new body members.” He sees a “worrying trend” of new protectionist measures springing up. “Belief in global free markets was challenged by the financial crisis. The feeling that the sheer pace of globalisation left people behind. You also have this wave of new technologies, everything from advanced manufacturing to AI and the use of big data and so on. They have been shaking how economies and job markets work.
“If we are to address some of those concerns, part of the solution is going to be more co-operation based on an agreed set of rules. That takes you right back to the heart of my job and the WTO. How do you continue to defend and celebrate free markets and trade and unleash the massive potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology as a force for good, in a way that shows you are still delivering for your citizens? New technology relies on public trust as well as the free flow of data.” Staines has several other roles, including chairing the programme and budget discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the UN’s agency responsible for running the global patent and trademark systems, as well as chairing the Working Party for the accession of the Bahamas to the WTO.
He also recently chaired a UN conference which brought together around 500 accountants and accountancy bodies to discuss how the profession can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through enhanced reporting. As many have argued, accountants are best placed to enable change, and to ensure sustainability is a key consideration in business decisions. However, a new report by PwC revealed that as many as two in five businesses are failing to meaningfully engage with the UN SDGs.
Launched in 2016 and agreed to by all nations in the UN, the SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets created to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030. So how do you prevent some businesses from just paying lip service to sustainability? “How do you recognise the contributions that businesses are making to this agenda? How do you show that? If it’s not reported properly, then it’s hard for businesses to show what they are doing. Reporting isn’t an end in itself, but it is important for more sustainable business models,” explains Staines.
“If 60% are doing it, then you have to look at why they are doing it. What value are they getting from it? If you are sustainable, you are reducing negative risk. If you are contributing or effectively supporting a government housing, or energy, or education effort, if you’re doing activities that support rather counter them, then you’d hope that in the longer term governments would recognise that.” Staines refers to his experience in the mining industry.
“Design your mines in a way that having the supply of inputs, for example, energy, is not threatening the local population. Populations vote on their happiness and governments react to that happiness.” Brexit, sustainability, protectionism, WTO politics, intellectual property – it’s quite a full plate. Staines says work is “pretty intense” and admits that emails tend to only get checked at weekends. He recalls a day skiing in the run-up to a big ministerial conference in which he spent his time on the ski lifts on the phone to his counterparts and used the run back down the slopes to clear his head. Living in Geneva helps balance out the stresses of work.
“You could be sitting in a meeting in the WTO at 6pm and be road biking through a field of sunflowers by 6.30pm,” with the foothills of the Alps as a backdrop. His family kayaks on Lake Geneva. A keen snowboarder and cross-country skier, Staines is learning biathlon as well this year. He does miss the UK “at times”, he admits, specifically a good British pub and watching Norwich City play. So what does the future hold?
“I’m here until the job is done and there are a few things I want to do. We’ve made good progress on Brexit but we need to make sure we actually can retake our seat. 2020 will be my 10th year in Geneva doing WTO work. “After 10 years serving the British government in the WTO it will probably be time for a change. I’m not wedded to a particular career path or sector as long as it’s challenging.”