Honorable Tim Groser (NZ)

WTO selection of a new Director-General — One Individual from a Developed Country Previously Reviewed Could Shorten the Process

In my post from May 15, I reviewed the procedures the General Council uses for selecting a new Director-General (“DG”). May 15, 2020:  World Trade Organization – Search for a new Director-General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/15/world-trade-organization-search-for-a-new-director-general/. With the current DG Roberto Azevedo having announced his intention to depart at the end of August this year, the WTO’s Chairman of the General Council, Amb. David Walker (NZ) is exploring with the Members whether the nine month normal selection process can be expedited to reduce or eliminate any gap period between DG Azevedo and the next DG. It is expected that with DG Azevedo having been from a developing country (Brazil), the next DG will be from a developed country. If true and if few or no developing countries put forward candidates, the WTO may face a smaller number of candidates put forward during the one month nominating process than was true in 2012-2013.

Amb. Walker today via email to the Members has suggested May 25th as the start date for the selection of a new DG. After that date, candidates can be put forward by their Member governments with a one month deadline (June 25). [UPDATE from May 20, start date will be June 8 will all candidates to be put forward by July 8. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgsel_20may20_e.htm].

As noted in my prior post on the subject, there was one developed country candidate who was put forward in 2012/2013. If that individual, former New Zealand Minister of Trade, Minister for Climate Change Issues and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs and former New Zealand Ambassador to the WTO Tim Groser is put forward by New Zealand when the nominating process commences, Members could decide on expedited procedures because of their familiarity with the Honorable Tim Groser, his proven strengths, his knowledge of the WTO and his ability to work with all governments and the review of him by the Members that took place in 2013. While such an approach will likely not be followed by the WTO Membership, if followed, there could be a relatively seamless transition with a very strong candidate taking over from the current DG at the end of August. For an organization facing the challenges the WTO is at the present time, such a smooth transition should be viewed as highly desirable.

The Hon. Tim Groser’s Curriculum Vitae in 2012 and later developments

When New Zealand put Groser forward as a candidate in 2012, he was in the middle of his service as New Zealand’s Minister of Trade, Minister for Climate Change Issues and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs. He also had extended service in Geneva both during the Uruguay Round and in early years of the Doha Development Agenda negotiations. While in Geneva he served as Chair of the Rules negotiations for a period of time and later served as the Chair for the Agriculture negotiations. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news12_e/biography_timgroser_newzealand_e.pdf .

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He continued in his capacity as New Zealand’s Minister of Trade and Minister for Climate Change Issues and Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs through 2015. From 2016 through 2018, Groser was New Zealand’s Ambassador to the United States and also served as a Special Envoy to the Pacific Alliance. Since 2019 he has headed up Groser & Associates, a trade consultancy. So the Honorable Tim Groser has a lifetime of commitment to trade expansion and the multilateral trading system.

January 30, 2013 Statement to the General Council

In early 2013, the problems facing the global trading system started with the inability of the WTO Members to conclude negotiations, a situation which has continued and, with few but important exceptions, worsened to the present time. The concerns that candidate Groser reviewed in his statement to the General Council on January 30, 2013 as part of the selection process included challenges to the dispute settlement system in terms of timeliness of decisions and the fundamental challenge of the breakdown in the negotiating function. The threat to the WTO at the time was perceived by candidate Groser to be to the continued relevance of the organization. He also believed that while there is an important political element to negotiations, the key is for progress at the technical and Geneva level before turning to senior trade officials for resolution of remaining issues.

The opening statement of candidate Groser from 2013 has continued relevance in 2020, although the challenges facing the WTO and its Members have gotten more complicated since 2012 with the impasse on the Appellate Body, the need to update the WTO rule book to make it relevant to technological developments, the changing makeup of membership with differing economic systems, and the changing economic capabilities of Members — all issues subsumed under the term “WTO reform”. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably occupied the energies of many countries and the work of much of the WTO to help the global economy keep markets open and support economic recovery.

The 2012 statement of the Honorable Tim Groser is embedded below.

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WTO Members were also able to raise questions to the candidates, though the time limitations meant that during the General Council meeting only selected countries could raise questions to a given candidate. The Q&A session for candidate Groser is included in the minutes of the General Council meeting held on January 29-31, 2013. See, e.g., WT/GC/M/142 at Annex D, Questions and Answers, pages 46-55. During the 75 minutes of questioning, twenty-four WTO Members were able to ask candidate Groser questions — Singapore, Czech Republic, Italy, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica, Chile, the United States, Uruguay, Croatia, China, Spain, Nepal, Thailand, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Haiti, Malaysia, Saint Lucia, Brunei Darussalem, Ecuador, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Japan.

Finally, all candidates were given the opportunity to have a press conference following their meeting with the General Council. The link to candidate Groser’s press conference is here. His comments to the media summarized his main points from his direct presentation and then responded to media questions. https://www.wto.org/audio/2013_01_30_dg_sel_groser.mp3.

Personal observation

Over the last thirty years, I have spent a great deal of time in Geneva meeting with government officials from many Members and with many GATT and now WTO Secretariat staff. I have been privileged to know many of the Ambassadors and other Mission staff over that thirty year time period, including Amb. Groser. I know of no one that I met with who did not have a very high opinion of the capabilities of Amb. Groser when he was in Geneva. The Secretariat staff who worked with Amb. Groser on the Rules negotiations or the Agriculture negotiations are similarly personally familiar with his leadership ability and ability to find paths forward on seemingly impossible issues.

As one friend from Geneva recently said to me, “I have seen literally thousands of officials, Trade Ministers and experts pass through the GATT and WTO in the decades I worked for the system. If I had to pick one person who I think has the capacity and integrity to address these systemic issues it would be the Honourable Tim Groser – New Zealand’s Trade Minister for seven years and prior to that a legendary official in Geneva from the moment he arrived in the mid-1980s as his country’s senior negotiator at the start of the Uruguay Round.”

Conclusion

As DG Azevedo has made clear, the WTO faces enormous challenges going forward. With his departure in a little over three months, the WTO needs a new Director-General who will oversee the member-driven effort to address the challenges. Specifically, the new Director-General will need to help the Membership approach the postponed 12th Ministerial Conference sometime in 2021, hopefully conclude ongoing multilateral negotiations on fisheries subsidies and plurilateral talks on e-commerce. The new Director-Gernal will also need to help the Membership deal with the complex issues of WTO dispute settlement reform and the restart of the Appellate Body, the pressing need to modernize the WTO’s rule book to cover new technologies and current issues, revitalize the negotiating function, and reflect the changing makeup of the Membership and the relevance of existing rules to different economic systems of Members.

While there are likely many potential candidates who would be “well qualified”, the normal selection process could take to the end of the year with implementation possibly delayed until sometime in 2021, requiring use of an acting Director-General. That process could be significantly reduced if (1) New Zealand chose to renominate the Honorable Tim Groser and (2) the major Members of the WTO viewed his strong credentials as a basis for reducing the number of candidates to permit expedited selection of a new Director-General. One can always hope.