Outgoing WTO chief Roberto Azevedo. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE
Outgoing WTO chief Roberto Azevedo. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE

Geneva/Brussels — Eight candidates, coming from Mexico to Moldova, are bidding to be the next director-general of the World Trade Organisation, replacing Roberto Azevedo, who steps down at the end of August.

The next chief would need to broker international trade talks in the face of widening US-China conflict, protectionism increased by the Covid-19 pandemic and pressure to reform trade rules.

US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies have upended the global trading order and presented an existential threat to the WTO. Trump has called the institution “broken” and “horrible”. Washington has blocked appointments to the WTO’s Appellate Body that settles trade disputes, which now no longer has the minimum number of judges to convene.

The candidates have been given two months to campaign until September 7. Normally this would involve trips to national capitals, but with the pandemic much of that is being done in a virtual format.

The next phase involves whittling down the field, initially to five then two, before a final decision is taken.

The WTO is a members-driven organisation with decisions reached by consensus among 164 countries. Three WTO ambassadors who chair leading committees will lead the process, seeking to establish which candidates have the widest support.

In so-called confessionals, members will tell this “troika” their preferences, without ranking them and without vetoes in a process expected to last two months. The first phase will be on September 7-16. Voting on the next director-general is seen only as a last resort if consensus cannot be reached.

The process does not always work smoothly. In 1999 former New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore and Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi divided WTO members. A compromise was finally found to give each a term, shortened to three years from four.

Azevedo’s term will finish before his replacement takes office, but WTO members failed to agree on a temporary caretaker director-general, meaning the four deputies will stay on in their current roles.

The Marrakesh Agreement that established the WTO in 1995 does not give a detailed description of the director-general’s role. The responsibilities should be “exclusively international in character”.

The incoming chief would be expected to appoint four new deputies, present budget proposals, and chair the trade negotiations committee which oversees multilateral accords such as that on fishing subsidies.

The director-general can also intervene in trade disputes, in rare cases offering mediation, more often by appointing people to adjudicating panels when parties cannot agree. Otherwise, the director-general does not forge global trade policy, but is meant to act as a neutral broker: part administrator, part peacemaker.

Reuters

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