New WTO chief: it’s Africa vs the West in race for top trade spot

Candidates from Africa and Europe have emerged as the main contenders for the much coveted chair of the WTO Director General. Both blocs are scrambling to get their candidates the spot, in the wake of a global pandemic disrupting trade. Included within is also an elaboration of the process for selection of the WTO head.

New WTO Chief

The World Trade Organization on Monday kicked off the process for selecting a new director-general, after its current chief Roberto Azevedo decided to leave a year early. The New WTO chief race is now being seen as a marathon between Africa and the West, as countries scramble to put their candidate at the helm.

With Azevedo, a Brazilian career diplomat, now set to leave on August 31, the WTO opened a one-month window for would-be successors to put forward their candidacies.

Roberto Azevedo’s surprise announcement last month that he will step down a year early has given the World Trade Organization three months to find a new boss, while the coronavirus crisis rages on.

New WTO chief: contenders from Africa

Mainly African and European names are currently circulating in the media as likely candidates.

While there is no geographic rotation principle at the global trade body, African countries have long insisted that it should finally be the continent’s turn to head the organisation.

Several African names appear likely to be in the running, including former Egyptian diplomat Hamid Mamdou, who worked with the WTO for years. Africans have emerged as strong contenders for the post of the much coveted new WTO chief.

Nigeria has backed Ngozi Okondha-Iweala for the post. She has served as Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs and of finance and currently serves as board chair of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

Eloi Laourou, Benin’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, has also been mentioned as a likely candidate.

Read more: EU warns of WTO challenge if China-US deal creates ‘distortions’

The African Union had voiced the ambition to settle on a single African candidate to put forward, but it remains unclear if it will manage to do so before the July 8 deadline.

The AU, like everyone else, believed it had more time on its hands, since the search for Azevedo’s successor had been scheduled to start in December.

However, the surprise announcement last month of his early departure has left everyone scrambling.

New WTO chief: Candidates from Europe 

Diplomats acknowledge that Africa may be in line for the post since the continent has never before provided a WTO director-general.

But a growing number of voices are also being raised for putting a representative from a developed country in charge, to ensure an economy category alternance after seven years with a Brazilian at the helm. Thus they stress that the new WTO chief has to be from Europe.

And a number of Europeans are reportedly interested in the post.

Read more: World Trade Organization witnesses US-China trade standoff

A source in Brussels confirmed to AFP that Irishman Phil Hogan, who has served as European Commissioner for Trade since 2019, is thinking about throwing his hat into the ring.

Other European names circulating include Dutch Foreign Trade Minister Sigrid Kaag, although her spokesperson told AFP that she was “not available” to become head of WTO.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzales, who stood against Azevedo in 2013 and who until recently ran the International Trade Centre, an organisation linked to the WTO, has also been mentioned.

But a spokesman told AFP she had enough on her plate currently with her foreign minister job.

The Europeans are expected to discuss the situation on Tuesday, with the aim of coming up with a single candidate.

If they want to have a chance, they will also need to convince the other developed nations, including the United States, to back their choice.

How the WTO will select new person at the helm

As the month-long window for candidacy proposals opened on Monday to find a new WTO director-general before Azevedo leaves on August 31, here is an overview of the procedure ahead:

Stage 1: The In-tray

In the midst of a global economic downturn sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, whoever takes the helm of the WTO will have their work cut out.

Ahead lie arduous preparations for a 2021 ministerial conference — the topmost decision-making body of the WTO, which usually meets every two years.

The new chief will also need to kick-start trade negotiations that have laid all but dormant for decades, deal with demands for far-reaching reform and also find a strategy to handle increasing attacks from the United States.

Washington, which has threatened to withdraw from the global trade body “if we have to”, is in particular demanding a review of the WTO’s legal arm, and a reassessment of China’s status as a developing country, which gives Beijing certain advantages on the world trade stage.

Stage 2: The campaign

Candidates who are not frightened off by the towering tasks ahead can apply for the post from Monday until July 8.

Read more: Will the WTO survive Trump?

Once that period ends, candidates will be invited to meet the 164 WTO members.

This normally takes up the first three months of a nine-month process. However, this time, the entire campaign will be over in three months, with the new director-general due to take over on September 1.

If the post cannot be filled in time, one of the deputy director-generals will step in as the acting chief.

The process is not an election but a consensual mechanism that works by elimination, with voting used only as a measure of last resort.

Stage 3: Elimination

The chair of the WTO’s General Council — David Walker of New Zealand — oversees the process, aided by the chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body, who act as facilitators.

As head of this “troika”, Walker will meet with representatives from the member states to determine their preferences and work out which candidate might have the best chance of securing consensus support.

There is no geographic rotation principle, but the rules state that in the final selection, member states will be asked to take into account the breadth of the WTO’s membership, and ensure it is reflected in successive appointments to the post.

After each consultation phase, the troika overseeing the process gradually eliminates the candidates with the least support.

Stage 4: Appointment

Following the final such stage, the troika submits to the ambassadors the name of the candidate they believe is most likely to obtain a consensus, and recommends their appointment.

If there is deadlock, they can vote as a last resort.

Brazilian career diplomat Azevedo came through three elimination rounds to succeed Frenchman Pascal Lamy as WTO director-general for his first four-year term, which began in 2013.

In 1999, however, member states were unable to agree on one candidate, so the rival contenders each served a three-year term.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

Facebook Comments

blank