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EU backs Nigerian WTO candidate Okonjo-Iweala

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Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends a press conference on July 15, 2020, in Geneva, following her hearing before World Trade Organization 164 member states’ representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as Director General. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Nigerian former finance ministrer Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala picked up crucial backing from the EU on Monday, sources said, giving her bid to become the first African head of the WTO a major boost.

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The World Trade Organization will announce its new director general next month, but sources said the EU will publicly announce its support for the 66-year-old economist on Tuesday.

Okonjo-Iweala was Nigeria’s first female finance minister and has long career at the World Bank as a development economist.

She has emerged as the favourite to replace Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo at the WTO, and to become the first director general from Africa and the first woman to lead the institution.

There is no leading European candidate for the post this time round, but some of the 27 EU member states backed South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, the other candidate still in the race.

A first meeting on Monday failed to find consensus around the choice, but member state representatives reconvened and agreed to back Okonjo-Iweala.

One European source said that seven member states had asked that their preference for Yoo be recorded in the statement, but another said backing Okonjo-Iweala was “a clear signal to Africa and a sign of mutual trust.”

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The WTO’s consultation process ends on Tuesday and the new leader is expected to be named in November.

If Okonjo-Iweala is confirmed she will join the WTO at difficult time, with the world facing a deep post-coronavirus recession and a crisis of confidence in free trade and globalisation.

A trade war is brewing between the world’s anchor economies — the United States and China — and the European Union will see G7 member Britain leave its single market at the end of the year.

US President Donald Trump faces a tough battle for re-election early next month, but under his leadership Washington’s relationship with the WTO has suffered.

His administration has appealed a WTO ruling that faulted US duties imposed on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods.

Usually, the WTO Appellate Body would have three months to rule on any appeals filed.

But that process has been complicated since the WTO Appellate Body — also known as the supreme court of world trade — stopped functioning last December as the US blocked the appointment of new judges to the panel.

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