Will EU backing help Okonjo-Iweala win WTO leadership race?

Why has the European Union backed Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala against South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee and what does its support mean for her chances in the WTO leadership race?


Image : Fabrice COFFRINI /AFP

What is the state of the race for the leadership of the World Trade Organisation?

The final round in the election for the next director-general of the World Trade Organisation, the multilateral body that regulates world trade, pits former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala against South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee.

The winner, who will be the WTO’s first female director-general, will take the reins as the global trading system comes under significant pressure from an ongoing trade war between the United States and China and amid unprecedented disruption caused by Covid-19.

In a significant coup for Okonjo-Iweala, European Union ambassadors confirmed this week that the Nigerian, who would be the first African director-general of the organisation, has secured the support of the EU’s 27 member states following discussions in Brussels last week after hearings with both candidates.  

Why has the European Union backed Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala?

On 21 October, Sven Simon and Bernd Lange, co-chairs of the European Parliament’s Steering Group on the Parliamentary Conference on the WTO, confirmed that the directly elected legislative body of the EU is backing Okonjo-Iweala. In a letter to the European Commission vice-president, they urged the EU to formally endorse Okonjo-Iweala, who they argued “revealed a deep understanding of the fault lines dividing the WTO membership.”  

“The priorities she set out for her first steps after being appointed to the position reveal a clear-eyed agenda, tackling head on key topics such as special and differential treatment, industrial subsidies and dispute settlement reform, while recognising the need for positive momentum through the conclusion of agreements on issues such as fisheries, e-commerce and health.”

The co-chairs said that Okonjo-Iweala’s political approach and reputation as a “fair broker” are needed to forge high-level political agreements between key global decision makers. Iweala has expressed confidence that she can mediate between the sparring United States and China, and claims to be the only candidate working at the intersection of trade and public health, which she says will enable the trade system to better deliver vaccines and medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

An anonymous EU official told the Financial Times that the decision to back Okonjo-Iweala was “a strong signal to reinforce the multilateral order”, as well as “a clear signal towards Africa and a sign of mutual trust”.  

How important is the EU endorsement, and will it be enough to secure victory?

The endorsement puts the powerful bloc of 27 states – including global powers Germany, France and Italy – squarely behind Okonjo-Iweala, delivering votes, influential support and momentum to her campaign. The common position forged by the EU helped Okonjo-Iweala hoover up the support of central, eastern European and Baltic states which were leaning towards Myung-hee.  

With the endorsement of the EU and the likely support of the WTO’s African member states, following the elimination of Kenya’s Amina Mohamed in the previous round, Okonjo-Iweala’s chances of securing the leadership look increasingly strong. Kyodo News reports that Japan is set to endorse Okonjo-Iweala amid long-standing commercial tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.  

Nevertheless, the race is not over yet. Washington DC is reported to favour Myung-hee, while China is remaining tight-lipped about its candidate of choice despite suggestions that Chinese tensions with South Korea could again scupper Myung-hee’s chances.

The support of the superpowers could prove crucial to the outcome of the race, given that consensus is vital to victory – the WTO says that “the ultimate objective of this measured and clearly defined selection process is to secure a consensus decision by members on the next director-general.”

What next?

Intense lobbying is taking place to secure the votes of the remaining superpowers and other undecided nations. WTO members will be asked in confidential consultations to express a single preference to a troika of WTO ambassadors, who will deliver their assessment on which of the two candidates is most likely to command consensus.

The winner is expected to be named by 7 November. Should Okonjo-Iweala be selected, she would be symbolic of African unity and, subsequently, well-positioned to cajole Africa on internal trade issues, according to J P Singh, professor of international commerce and policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

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