EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan abandons interest in WTO role

Phil Hogan, the EU’s trade commissioner, has pulled out of the race to become the next head of the World Trade Organization, leaving the bloc with one week to decide whether to put forward an alternative candidate. 

Mr Hogan said on Monday that he had decided not to put his name forward out of concern that the lengthy contest would be too much of a distraction from his role as EU trade commissioner, during a crucial time for relations with the US, China and the UK. 

“This important EU trade agenda requires the full and careful involvement of the European Union and in particular, the trade commissioner,” he said in a published statement. “I will return to my duties of trade commissioner with immediate effect.”

Mr Hogan’s decision leaves the EU without an obvious candidate for the post ahead of the closing date for nominations on July 8. The Irishman is so far the only senior EU policymaker to have expressed an interest; he announced earlier this month that he was considering a candidacy, and secured backing from the Irish government.

But Mr Hogan said that the logistics of the race made the situation impossible.

Had he pressed ahead, the commissioner would have needed to take months of leave to drum up support and attend hearings, with responsibility for the EU trade portfolio temporarily reassigned.

The Irishman was already facing restrictions in his public appearances, and greater institutional oversight of his work, after European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen decided to apply conflict of interest rules even before he formalised his candidacy.

“A new director-general of the WTO should be appointed without delay,” Mr Hogan said in his statement. “However, in recent days, it has become evident that the original timeline for this appointment in early September 2020 will be delayed and therefore create uncertainty in the leadership of the organisation at this critical time.”

While Mr Hogan put his decision down to timing, EU diplomats pointed out that his move for the job had run into immediate obstacles.

Countries including France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark have questioned the need for an EU candidate in the race, saying that priority should be given to any candidate who could pull together the organisation’s disparate 164-strong membership and deliver real reform. 

Another early blow came from Washington, where a spokesperson for US trade representative Robert Lighthizer quickly denied a claim Mr Hogan had made that his US counterpart wanted the next WTO chief to come from a “developed country”.

Mr Hogan’s decision not to go ahead amounted to “bowing to the inevitable”, said one EU diplomat. 

EU trade officials said that national governments would hold talks in the coming days over what to do, potentially at a regular meeting of national trade policy experts on Friday. 

The race for the leadership of the WTO was triggered by the decision of current director-general Roberto Azevêdo to step down early. The declared candidates are Egypt’s Hamid Mamdouh, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria, Jesús Seade Kuri of Mexico, Tudor Ulianovschi from Moldova and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee.

Mr Hogan left open the possibility that another European candidate could emerge, saying that his decision “will allow other potential candidates (including European nominees) to consider their candidacy before the close of nominations on July 8”.

But other possible names have faded from contention in recent weeks: Spanish foreign minister Arancha González was widely tipped in trade circles, but her situation is complicated by the fact that one of her colleagues in government, economy minister Nadia Calviño, is in the race to become the next president of the eurogroup of finance ministers.

Highly rated Dutch trade minister Sigrid Kaag has said that she will not apply; she is also in a strong position to become the next leader of the Netherlands’ Democrats 66 party.

Mr Hogan said that his priorities for the coming months would include the post-Covid-19 economic recovery and negotiations on an investment treaty with China. The commissioner also said he would continue efforts to prevent further trade hostilities with the US.

“The escalation of trade rhetoric and the unnecessary imposition of tariffs on EU goods by the USA rather than negotiating solutions to trade irritants is unacceptable and requires ongoing focus,” he said.