Trade

Hogan under pressure to decide on WTO candidacy

Phil Hogan has dipped his toe into the pool of candidates vying to become global trade chief, but now he must decide whether to take the plunge.

Brussels on Tuesday ramped up the pressure on the Irishman to choose whether hell officially run for the top job at the World Trade Organization — or stay in his current job at the European Commission, which many liberal EU countries say they prefer.

Hogan is wagering he could get the post in Geneva by peddling his ample experience in EU trade negotiations — both currently as trade commissioner and formerly as agriculture boss. However, he has yet to officially enter the race: Last week, Hogan confirmed prior reports from POLITICO that hes “exploring” whether to throw his hat into the ring for the position, which should ideally be filled by September.

Hogans boss, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is now forcing him to make a move. On Tuesday, von der Leyens spokesman Eric Mamer announced restrictions on Hogans public appearances, in an effort to isolate EU trade policy from possible conflicts of interests emerging from his interest in the WTO job.

He will also need to seek a sign-off from Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis on any trade policy decisions as long as hes considering the position.

“We dont want him in Geneva, we want him in Brussels” — an EU diplomat

The new rules mean Hogan is no longer supposed to speak publicly about his WTO bid as long as he isnt officially a candidate, two Commission officials told POLITICO.

People close to Hogan said he would take a leave of absence from his job as commissioner if he decides to apply for the post, like former commissioner Kristalina Georgieva did during her failed bid to become U.N. secretary-general in 2016.

Fragile equilibrium

But a group of liberal EU countries is growing increasingly worried that his departure would weaken the EUs free-trade agenda.

The Netherlands, in particular, is concerned that Hogan leaving would set off a major reshuffle within the Commission in which the trade portfolio could end up falling into the hands of more a protectionist country, such as Italy or France, two EU diplomats said. Other liberal EU countries and industry lobbies echoed those fears.

“We dont want him in Geneva, we want him in Brussels,” said one Western EU diplomat.

At a meeting of EU trade ministers last week, France, the Netherlands and Belgium were among a group of countries that were decidedly lukewarm on Hogans candidacy, saying Europe should keep open the possibility of endorsing a non-EU candidate. “We dont necessarily want to search outside the EU, but we shouldnt close that door yet either,” said Dutch Trade Minister Sigrid Kaag.

A diplomat from another Western European country went even further and said, “We specifically said that we should be open to African candidates given the EUs renewed attention for Africa and the fact that they never held the post.”

A senior French official also described Nigerias Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as a “good candidate.”

Only the Baltic countries, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Portugal explicitly supported the idea of an EU candidate, according to an attendants notes from last weeks meeting, seen by POLITICO.

Nigeria nominated Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be WTO director general | Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images

However, even the diplomats from the most skeptical countries said their governments would not vote against Hogan if he was nominated as a candidate.

Members of the European Parliament said gender should also be part of the considerations, as many feel it is long time for the WTO to have its first female leader. “Hogan clearly is not a woman,” one EU lawmaker said.

Bumpy start

Even with the backing of EU countries, it would still be a major gamble whether another European could get the WTO job: Trade relations between the EU and the U.S. are at a major low point and Washington could campaign to block Brussels candidate.

EU diplomats, as well as liberal MEPs and industry officials, said they feared that a failed run for Hogan would damage the EUs trade interests.

“Any EU candidate would be blocked by the United States,” a diplomat from another EU country said, pointing out that six out of the nine previous world trade chiefs have been Europeans.

Hogan indeed had an unexpectedly bumpy start to his WTO campaign after the U.S. said it would consider backing a candidate from a developing country.

At last weeks ministerial meeting, Hogan told reporters that he had discussed his potential candidacy with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “I can confirm that we had a conversation about this some time ago,” Hogan Read More – Source