Runners and riders: the race to lead WTO gathers pace as superpowers jostle for influence

Wed 10 Jun 2020
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
Trade News

WTO flag

The task of replacing Roberto Azevedo as director general of the World Trade Organisation is starting to gather pace in a process that could involve plenty of diplomatic wheeling and dealing.

Nominations for the position close on 8 July.

Azevedo, a Brazilian former diplomat, announced his resignation in May and it will take effect on 31 August 2020.

He has been heading an organisation caught in the middle of rising geopolitical tensions between the superpower trading blocs of the United States, the EU and China.

Diplomatic tensions

According to Politico, the selection of the new WTO chief has “always been a game of international wheeling and dealing,” something which will be heightened by the recent challenging stance of the US towards the body and heightened tensions between western nations and China.

China and the West have also jostled for positions at the top of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (UNFAO) this year – both also based in Geneva.

US and European influence held sway when Singapore regulator Daren Tang won the contest to lead WIPO, but EU officials were dismayed when China’s Qu Dongyu became director general of UNFAO, Politico reports.

The EU is said to favour choosing one candidate that the bloc can support and ensure a smooth succession when the post becomes vacant in September.

In the running

Three candidates have so far officially announced they are standing for the WTO top position:

Mr Jesús Seade Kuri (Mexico) – a senior trade official in the Mexican government who played a key role in restructuring NAFTA

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria) – an economist and development specialist who has served as Nigeria’s foreign minister and finance minister and been a managing director of the World Bank

Considering it

Phil Hogan (Ireland) – European Commissioner for Trade since 2019, and previously European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development between 2014 and 2019.

Acknowledging he is considering applying for the post, Hogan was quoted in the Irish Times as saying: “There is an important amount of work to be done to reform the organisation, to make it more effective and efficient, but also to deal with many of the trade issues that are bedevilling the international community now arising from Covid-19.”

According to Politico, there is a growing feeling that it is time for an African to hold the position, with the only person from an emerging nation to have held the role before Azevedo being Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi.

Rumoured to run

Other candidates thought to be in the running according to Politico and Reuters, include:

Eloi Laourou (Benin) – ambassador to the U.N. and WTO – described by Reuters as a diplomat of 30 experience years and “champion of the rights of poorer countries”

Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt) – a former trade negotiator for Egypt and ex-WTO official who helped draft an agreement on trade in services in the landmark Uruguay Round deal

Amina Mohamed (Kenya) – a previous candidate in 2013 who was the first woman to chair the WTO’s General Council in 2005

Arancha Gonzalez Laya (Spain) - former assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of the International Trade Centre

Cecilia Malmström (Sweden) - European Commissioner for Trade from 2014 to 2019