The unexpected early departure of Roberto Azevêdo as director-general of the World Trade Organization has caused a flurry of interest in his replacement against a background of deep concern about the institution.
But despite criticism of the WTO’s muted role during the coronavirus crisis and the threats to its existence, those candidates showing an interest so far have emphasised judicious reform rather than radical change.
In interviews with the Financial Times, Kenya’s former trade minister Amina Mohamed and Peter Mandelson, the British former EU trade commissioner, both said a new director-general would have to convince the consensus-driven organisation of the need for reform, bridging gaps between the big members, especially China and the US.
Mr Azevêdo, who on Thursday announced he would depart in September, a year before the end of his term, has led the WTO during a period when it has faced wholesale assault from US president Donald Trump’s administration. The WTO has largely taken a back seat during the pandemic, citing its lack of ability to prevent governments from imposing crisis-related restrictions on exports.
Ms Mohamed, who is seeking united support from African governments for the post and would be the WTO’s first female leader, said the organisation’s rule book needed to change. But she offered only limited suggestions such as streamlining its judicial processes and improving transparency about governments’ trade-distorting actions.
The Kenyan said the director-general needed to be someone experienced in working within the organisation. “We need someone with the right experience, someone who is committed to the multilateral system . . . but also has the political stature to be an effective facilitator and a consensus-builder,” she said.
“If that person happens to be African, or happens to be a woman, I think it will be so much better,” Ms Mohamed said. “It is important to be inclusive and show that the membership knows that every part of the globe can make a positive contribution to the running of the WTO.”
Lord Mandelson, EU trade commissioner from 2004-2008, said: “Wholesale change is not going to be brought about in one bound.” He continued: “Achieving this as [director-general] is a major political task. It is not going to be done by someone shy and retiring or who sees themselves as a civil servant or a technician.”
Although Lord Mandelson, a Labour party peer, is interested in the position, trade officials in the UK and Brussels said he would struggle to secure support from some senior British politicians. Despite Lord Mandelson’s own pro-European credentials, it would also be hard for the EU to support a British candidate during the fractious Brexit negotiations, the officials said. Liam Fox, the Conservative former trade secretary, on Sunday indicated his interest but has few political backers in government.
With Cecilia Malmstrom, the Swedish recently departed trade commissioner, having indicated her lack of interest, a plausible EU candidate is Sigrid Kaag, Dutch trade minister. Arancha González, Spain’s foreign minister, has long shown interest but has only recently taken up her ministerial post.
African governments have indicated that, following director-generals from Brazil, France, Thailand and New Zealand, there is a strong case for an African candidate. Most trade officials regard Ms Mohamed, currently Kenya’s sports minister, as one of the most credible possibilities. She chaired some of the most important decision-making bodies within the WTO and the organisation’s full biennial ministerial meeting when it was held in Nairobi in 2015.
Mr Azevêdo wants a successor in place by the time he leaves in September, but the WTO membership could decide to extend the process into next year, potentially diminishing the Trump administration’s influence over the appointment.
The US, which has largely bypassed the WTO and fought a direct trade war with China, has sought to cripple its dispute settlement function by refusing to appoint new judges to the appellate body, and criticised its inability to rein in Beijing’s trade-distorting economic model.