European Union Blocs Back Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala to lead the WTO

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The EU will back Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general of the World Trade Organization, boosting the Nigerian’s frontrunner status.

Ambassadors from the EU’s 27 member states confirmed on Monday that the bloc would throw its weight behind Ms Okonjo-Iweala, following discussions among EU leaders during their summit in Brussels last week.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister, is facing off against South Korea’s trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, in the final round of voting at the WTO. The winner is expected to be declared early next month.

An EU official said the decision to back Ms Okonjo-Iweala, who would be the first WTO chief from Africa, was “a strong signal to reinforce the multilateral order”, as well as “a clear signal towards Africa and a sign of mutual trust”.

Policymakers, including Valdis Dombrovskis, EU trade commissioner, Peter Altmaier, German economy minister, and Charles Michel, EU Council president, have sought to forge a common EU stance for the final voting round. The EU itself had decided not to field a candidate of its own.

An EU diplomat said that, during the internal deliberations, Ms Okonjo-Iweala had been backed by France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, among others. Ms Yoo found considerable support among EU governments in central and eastern Europe, including the Baltic states.

A person briefed on the discussions among ambassadors on Monday said Latvia and Hungary — the last two holdout countries favouring Ms Yoo — agreed to switch and join the majority position at a special meeting convened at 6pm.

Trade diplomats from the EU27 held hearings with both candidates on October 14.

The EU decision leaves Ms Yoo facing an uphill struggle. Japan and China are expected to exercise a de facto veto against her because of political tensions with Seoul.

A challenging time awaits WTO’s next chief
The new director-general needs to be chosen by consensus among the WTO’s 160-plus member governments. The role became available because of the unexpected early resignation of Roberto Azevêdo, a Brazilian who had held the job since 2013. He stepped down in September.

The new chief will take over at a time when the WTO’s capacity to promote rules-based trade has been undermined by gaps in its rule book. These have been exposed by China’s model of capitalism, and by President Donald Trump’s propensity for taking unilateral action to hit back against perceived ill-treatment of US companies.

But the new director-general will also assume office at a pivotal moment, when the international community will either be adjusting to a new US administration or preparing for another four years of Mr Trump.

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