EU to put forward bids of Nigerian and Korean candidates for WTO top job

The global trade body plans to announce two finalists after October 6 and name a new leader by November 7

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters next to a red traffic light in Geneva, Switzerland, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
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European Union governments are nearing an agreement to support the Nigerian and South Korean candidates to lead the World Trade Organisation as the arbiter of international commerce prepares to whittle down a list of contenders.

EU member-country envoys plan on Monday to endorse Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister, and Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea’s trade chief, in their bids to become WTO director-general, according to officials familiar with the matter. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are confidential.

Of the 27 EU countries, only Hungary withheld support at a Brussels meeting on Friday of national trade experts for a plan to put Ms Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Yoo on the bloc’s new shortlist, according to one official. That resistance may be overcome at Monday’s higher-level gathering, the official said.

The WTO plans to announce two finalists after October 6 and name a new leader by November 7. Brazilian Roberto Azevedo stepped down from the job at the end of August — a year before his term ended.

The Geneva-based trade body faces headwinds from the coronavirus pandemic, the US-China trade battle, a hobbled arbitration system and a lack of tools to tackle growing challenges such as industrial subsidies.

Sabine Weyand, director general for trade in the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said last month the bloc’s governments were committed to staying united throughout the process for picking the next WTO chief.

As part of the previous winnowing-down stage from eight WTO candidates to five, the EU submitted a single list of four favorites including Ms Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Yoo. Of the other two people on that EU list, only former Kenyan International Trade Minister Amina Chawahir Mohamed Jibril is still in the overall race.

The unified EU stance aims to “make sure that we maximise the impact of our 27 votes in the selection process, which matters hugely to us given the centrality of the WTO for EU trade policy,” Ms Weyand said during an online event in September.

She said the EU wants the next WTO chief to be “committed to true multilateralism,” espouse a “root and branch” revamp of the institution “in all its functions,” have “the political clout to tackle resistances in the system” and be able “to build bridges between the major trading powers which are currently at loggerheads.”

“We have to get it back on track,” Ms Weyand said.