Team player

Elizabeth Stewart spoke to the new Chair of the AERL Nicholas Niggli about his plans to take the organization to the next level.

Any seasoned trade diplomat will tell you trade talks are a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s just as well that athlete-turned-diplomat (and WTO veteran) Nicholas Niggli has a passion for endurance sports…

Below: Sports-mad Nicholas Niggli likes an uphill challenge

“Competitive sport taught me lessons which I now use in my diplomatic career – discipline, stamina, mental engagement and team work,” reflects Niggli, who heads up the Economic, Trade and Finance Section at the Swiss Embassy and is the new Chairman of the Association of Economic Representatives in London (AERL), the network for the capital’s trade and economic diplomats since the 1960s.

Niggli is very much a team player and collective endeavour is clear to see on the walls of the Swiss Trade Section, where he asked colleagues to contribute a creative work reflecting an aspect of economic diplomacy. The result is a surprising and engaging display that is a great ice-breaker for visitors.

Building bridges at the WTO
Niggli’s own office is an eclectic collection of photos and artifacts gathered while backpacking in some of the world’s most challenging terrain, from the Himalayas to the Caucasus, Middle East and Asia. “The cultural engagement that you get from immersing yourself in a new place helps you as a diplomat. You learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in negotiations and that helps you to build bridges,” adds Niggli (who worked as an intercultural consultant in a previous life).

Arriving at the World Trade Organization at the start of the Doha Round, he soon acquired a reputation as an effective consensus builder and spent the next 11 years deep in trade negotiations.

He was part of the Swiss team that helped mediate between Georgia and Russia in the delicate negotiations to enable the latter’s accession to the WTO) – and in 2007 he was elected to chair the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) the aim of which was to make States’ procurement processes open, fair, transparent and non-discriminatory.

“We were remodeling an older [WTO] agreement from a one-size-fits-all to a more tailor-made agreement, the ultimate goal being to welcome the emerging countries, developing countries and frontier markets to the GPA,” explains Niggli.

It was “fascinating and incredibly complex,” admits Niggli (he worked 15-hour days, seven days a week for the six final months of this negotiation process) but with the help of his motivated team, 42 parties signed up to the deal, unlocking a market worth up to US$100 billion a year.

Niggli also joined WTO missions to promote the deal to developing and emerging countries, for whom signing up to the GPA would give a seal of credibility which would help attract much needed FDI in infrastructure building.

The agreement came into force in April this year and the hope is that it will lead to more efficient government spending, more bang for the taxpayer’s buck, better governance and more opportunities for innovative companies and investors across the GPA Membership.

Strength in diversity
Now in London, Niggli is bringing that same super-charged energy and stamina to the AERL, while building on the foundations laid by his much-admired predecessor, Austrian Trade Commissioner Georg Karabaczek.

Having taken a “helicopter view” of the organisation’s structure, his first priority will be to reinforce the team around him, to bring more regional diversity into the management board. “I’d like every major region of the world represented so that their priorities can be reflected in the organisation’s activities,” he says. The website is also due for a revamp to reflect this diversity, he adds.

Emphasising the essential “human dimension” in diplomacy, Niggli foresees that the new board members will be responsible for spreading the word about the organisation to peers from their region.
In addition, He aims to boost the prestige of the organisation to attract high-calibre speakers. “We should be perceived as a sought-after platform,” says Niggli who hopes member missions both large and small will use the AERL’s collective leverage to open doors that would be harder to access working alone.

So creating strategic partnerships with ‘gateway organisations’ like chambers of commerce and trade associations is part of the plan: “I see the AERL as creating bridges with organisations that will help us to grow and to create win-win situations,” explains Niggli.

Popular AERL visits to economic institutions such as the London Stock Exchange, the Bank of England and the City of London will remain part of the tried-and-tested formula. But having spent time as a student at Aberdeen University (the UK’s oil capital), Niggli is conscious that there is more to the British economy than London. “Despite the ‘L’ in the Association’s name, I want us from time to time to go beyond London to see what other regions have to offer,” he says.

A passionate uphill cyclist, Niggli uses a well-known British cycling team analogy to sum up his vision for the AERL: “I see massive opportunities through marginal gains, improving small things that can make a huge difference. There’s lots untapped potential for the AERL.”

If you are interested in joining or finding out more about the AERL contact Nicholas Niggli & Monika Celaschi on 020 7616 6053 or email and/or
For more information on the AERL visit visit