Today’s informal Heads of Delegations meeting at the World Trade Organization has ended. It had two agenda items — finalizing the phase three procedures in the selection process of the next Director-General and seeing if agreement was possible on which of the four Deputy Directors-General should serve as acting Director-General beginning September 1 until a new Director-General is selected (probably by November 7). The current Director-General is stepping down on August 31, 2020, a year early.
No acting Director-General yet
Press reports indicate that WTO Members were not able to agree on an acting Director-General based on differences between the US and EU and opposition to Alan Wolff by three Members — China, Venezuela and Cuba. See Bryce Baschuk, July 31, 2020, Dysfunction Deepens at the WTO, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-31/wto-dysfunction-deepens-as-members-fail-to-pick-an-interim-chief. Instead the existing four Deputy Directors-General will continue on until a new Director-General is selected and will continue to handle their current portfolios.
Procedures for the final phase of the section process for a new Director-General
Phase three of the selection process will start on September 8 after candidates have had their two months to make themselves known to the membership. Chairman of the General Council, David Walker (NZ) confirmed the procedures for the third (final) phase as they were discussed at the Tuesday informal Heads of Delegations meeting. There will be three rounds of consultations, in the confessional format, where each Member identifies first four, then two and finally the one candidate the Member views as most likely to achieve consensus among the Members (i.e., the Member’s preference(s)). Members are not permitted to express negative preferences nor provide a ranking when giving their preferences.
Amb. Walker with two facilitators (the Chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and of the Trade Policy Review Body) will then determine the three candidates having the least support in round one; those three candidates will be expected to withdraw. In round two, three more candidates from the remaining five candidates will be expected to withdraw based on results of the confessionals. The third round will have just two candidates remaining, with the candidate receiving the lesser support expected to withdraw. In each round, the Chair of the General Council and his facilitators will also consider breadth of support among Members (both geographic and type of Member (developed, developing, least developed). The three rounds of consultations are viewed as helping build a consensus among the membership. At the end of the third round, there will be one candidate remaining who will be presented by the Chair of the General Council to the General Council as the candidate most likely to obtain consensus. If the Members agree by consensus on the candidate, that candidate becomes the next Director-General. If not, taking a vote by Members is a possibility under the 2002 procedures adopted by the General Council on selecting Directors-General.
It is understood that Amb. Walker has indicated that there will a short period for each round of confessionals (six working days), consistent with prior selections. Members who have put forward candidates are informed of results first, and then results are reported to the Heads of Delegations. Confidentiality by the Chair of the General Council and his facilitators is obviously critical and historically has not been a problem.
It is obviously disappointing that the divisions in the WTO membership are so deep that something as simple as agreeing on which of the four Deputy Directors-General should be the acting Director-General (a role which is essentially just administrative) could not be accomplished before the August break. It seems highly unlikely that there will be a resolution of differences that would permit the selection of an acting Director-General before September 1. Thus, the WTO will likely proceed with the current Deputy Directors-General and no acting Director-General until a new Director-General is selected.
The third and final phase of the selection process will start in early September and be concluded within two months. The procedures adopted in 2002 and followed in 2005 and in 2013 were successful in helping Members build consensus behind a single candidate. The Chairman of the General Council has announced procedures which appear to be identical to those used successfully in the past. The open question is whether the current conflict among Members will frustrate obtaining consensus by early November. Let’s hope a consensus is possible.