Two weeks after the WTO opened the nomination process for candidates to fill the Director-General post which becomes vacant on September 1, 2020, four countries have put forward candidates — Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt and Moldova. The period for nominations will come to a close on July 8 (COB Geneva time), so there are still sixteen days for additional candidates to be put forward.
There are many rumors and a few facts on possible candidates not yet announced. Press have indicated that Benin, which had had a candidate identified for consideration by the African Union, has withdrawn H.E. Mr. Eloi Laourou (Benin’s current Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO) from consideration and will be supporting Nigeria’s candidate, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. See The Africa Report, Benin drops its WTO candidate in support of Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala (15 June 2020), https://www.theafricareport.com/29941/benin-drops-its-wto-candidate-in-support-of-nigerias-okonjo-iweala/.
The other African name floated as a possible candidate has been Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, current sport and culture minister and former Kenyan Ambassador to the WTO who was the first woman to chair the WTO’s General Counsel. She was also a candidate for the Director-General position in 2012-2103 when Roberto Azevedo of Brazil was selected. While mentioned early, there has been little in the press indicating Kenya will be nominating her, but there is obviously still time if Kenya so chooses. See Financial Times, Contenders Set Out Stalls to Succeed Azevedo at Helm of WTO, May 17, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/fc5fda8e-56cb-4866-b477-f4c3af603b5c.
Possible Developed Country Candidate(s)?
It has been rumored that there would be one or more developed country candidates and some WTO Members or their trade ministers, like the EU, have articulated a belief that the next Director-General should be from a developed country, consistent with the recent rotation between developed and developing country having the post of Director-General. Since DG Azevedo is from Brazil, a developing country, developed countries should take the next turn, according to this logic.
An article in the New York Times indicates that the European Trade Commissioner, Phil Hogan (Ireland) has confirmed he is considering a bid. See New York Times, Who’s Bidding to Be Next World Trade Organization Chief?, June 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/06/22/business/22reuters-trade-wto-factbox.html.
Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya has also been repeatedly identified as a potential candidate. She was chef de cabinet for Director-General Pascal Lamy who served from 2005-2013.
Other developed countries could decide to nominate one or more candidates, though press accounts indicate that Australia is not planning on submitting a candidate (at least not at present) and the U.S. has historically not put forward a candidate from the U.S. See Financial Review, No Australian candidate for WTO boss, Birmingham says, June 22, 2020, https://www.afr.com/world/europe/no-australian-candidate-for-wto-boss-birmingham-says-20200619-p554gf
Rumors have suggested that the Republic of Korea may submit a candidate. Japan has been very active in recent years through their ambassadors to the WTO but is not believed to be likely to put forward a candidate.
New Zealand had a Director-General two decades ago, Michael Moore, and its Trade Minister and former Ambassador to the WTO, Tim Groser, ran in 2012-2013. It is unclear whether New Zealand will put forward a candidate, whether former Minister Groser or someone else.
There is a rumor in Geneva that more nominations are likely and that at least one more may materialize later this week. If such an event materializes, I would suspect someone from an EU country or from Korea will become the fifth candidate.
Outreach by existing candidates and legal wrangling between African countries
The advantage of being an early announced candidate in the current process is that candidates can get their views out through the media ahead of the General Council meeting, and there is more time for their governments to court support from other WTO Members. Particularly when there is interest in expediting the selection process because of the near-term departure of existing Director-General Azevedo, such opportunities for pre-General Council wooing of other Members and media outreach will be more limited for candidates joining closer to the end of the nominating time period. The General Council meeting to meet and hear from the candidates is understood to likely be sometime in the week of July 12. If there is actually an effort to expedite the selection process after July 8, time will be very limited for candidates after the General Council meeting.
It is clear that at least the first three candidates are taking advantage of media to articulate their vision for the WTO and their role if selected as the next DG. Nominating governments are also doing outreach to trading partners seeking to build up support for their candidate.
For example, Jesus Seade Kuri, the Mexican candidate, provided an interview to the South China Morning Post which was published on June 18, 2020, Mexico’s nominee for top WTO job, Jesus Seade, vows to ‘bring US and China back to the table’, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3089452/mexicos-nominee-top-wto-job-jesus-seade-vows-bring-us-and.
Similarly, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had her views on the WTO DG job published in various publications including the Pulse, ‘I’m a strong negotiator, reformer,’ Okonjo-Iweala makes her case for ‘challenging’ WTO job, June 17, 2020, https://www.pulse.ng/business/okonjo-iweala-former-minister-makes-case-for-wto-job/y123dsb.
Outreach has also been made by Egypt’s Abdel Hamid Mamdouh as he laid out what he considered to be important aspects of his candidacy in an article that appeared in The Africa Report on June 11. See Egypt’s Abdel Hamid Mamdouh bid for the WTO – Five things to know, June 11, 2020, https://www.theafricareport.com/29730/egypts-abdel-hamid-mamdouh-bid-for-the-wto-five-things-to-know/.
All candidates have recognized the challenges with the tensions between the United States and China, the need to be an honest broker, how their background gives them strengths needed to address the role of Director-General amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and need for reform at the WTO.
While Mexico is working on shoring up support for Mr. Seade amongst WTO Members in the Americas (and elsewhere), the two African candidates are working to gain support from their African colleagues (and others). Little has been in the press as yet as to what actions Moldova or its candidate are taking in the early days after Tudor Ulianovschi’s nomination.
Egypt has attempted to have Nigeria’s candidate disqualified on the grounds that Nigeria had another proposed candidate submitted to the African Union but withdrew that candidate and put forward Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala past the deadline for such nominations. The African Union’s counsel concurred but that position has been challenged by Nigeria. In any event, WTO procedures limit who may nominate candidates to WTO Members. Nigeria is a member while the African Union is not. Therefore, whatever is relevant for African Union member consideration, it is not relevant to whether Nigeria or any other AU member can propose a candidate to the WTO by July 8. See The Cable, Okonjo-Iweala still eligible to run for office of DG, says, WTO, June 20, 2020, https://www.thecable.ng/exclusive-okonjo-iweala-still-eligible-to-run-for-office-of-dg-says-wto. This type of public discord will not be helpful to obtaining solidarity around a single African candidate which has been the presumed purpose of the African Union’s process.
With roughly half of the nomination time period having run, it is clear that there will be a significant number of candidates. It is unclear how many developed country candidates will end up running and to what extent members will focus more on geographical area, development status, or gender of the candidates in their considerations.
With the U.S., the EU and China having very different views of what needs to be done to return the WTO to relevance and with the recent USTR statement that any candidate to receive U.S. backing must “understand the need for reform and the problems of free economies in dealing with China” (New York Times, U.S. Wants WTO Head Who Understands Problems Dealing with China: Lighthizer, June 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/06/17/world/asia/17reuters-usa-trade-wto.html), the road ahead will be challenging for all candidates with no guarantee that the process will succeed in either an expedited or normal time period.
Hopefully, the Chairman of the General Council (Amb. David Walker) and the WTO Secretariat have the four Deputy Directors-General warming up in case one of them is needed to serve as the Acting Director-General beginning September 1st.