Europe: Will the UK pick the free-trade winner?

If the PM's referendum pledge damages links with the EU, he will need the World Trade Organisation's new head onside

Laos, the small land-locked communist nation in south-east Asia, this weekend joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) just as the UK, the birthplace of Adam Smith, appears to be on the verge of exiting arguably the greatest free-market structure ever formed. Laos is waking up to the need for foreign investment, while the UK move is upsetting some of its most important trading partners.

David Cameron's announcement last month that he will hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union towards the end of 2017, should he be re-elected, was met with concern from the WTO.

The confused reaction of the director-general, Pascal Lamy, was instructive. He seemed uncertain about the consequences of Cameron's announcement: critics argue that the near five-year lead time to a vote will mean that nations and companies will question whether or not the UK is a good place to trade.

Lamy said: "Whether a change in the relationship between the UK and Europe would change the trade relationship remains to be seen. I'm not saying I don't think so [that the relationship will change], but I know countries – like Norway or Switzerland – who are not members of the EU and whose trade relationships with the EU are very open."

Cameron has shown a clear interest in developing trade links with emerging economies through regular trade missions from Latin America to Asia. The WTO supervises and regulates trade between its 158 members, meaning the UK wants a director-general who will back the country as it looks to open up fast-growing economies that are rich in minerals, oil and labour.

Lamy, a former politician, has led the WTO since 2005, but comes to the end of his second term this summer. There were seemingly well-sourced reports last year that the former business secretary Lord Mandelson was in the frame to replace the Frenchman, but instead a crowded field of nine candidates, none of whom is from Europe, are in the running (see above).

The first candidate presentations to the WTO's membership took place behind closed doors last week, but a new boss doesn't have to be named until the end of May. That's a long time to wait for a job, but gives the UK, Europe and the US less than four months to identify the candidate who will best represent their interests from what is a fairly obscure field of diplomats, academics and trade experts.

Shortly after the deadline for all potential candidates to throw their hats into the ring passed at the turn of the year, Ladbrokes installed the Scotland-born New Zealand trade minister Tim Groser as 3-1 joint favourite (with Costa Rica's Anabel Gonzalez) to succeed Lamy.

Groser is thought to be favoured by Western nations, though the New Zealand foreign minister, Murray McCully, insists the campaign is built around the "personal attributes" of his experienced colleague rather than any geographical bias.

That might well prove to be the undoing of Groser's pitch, as the man himself acknowledged after his Q&A with organisation members. "If it is a foreign policy question that we are trying to address in the choice of a director-general, then I'm not the answer," he said.

There is a sense within the WTO that the new head needs to be someone from an emerging economy to reflect new centres of growth. This could favour Ghana's Alan Kyerematen, a trade adviser at the UN Commission for Africa – should his core support not divide between him and the continent's other candidate, Kenya's Amina Mohamed, who is also one of three women in the running.

Mohamed was not afraid to play the gender card, arguing that it would "send a very, very powerful signal" if a woman got the role. Not wanting to lose any advantage over the Latin American Gonzalez or Indonesia's Mari Pangestu, Mohamed also argued that the woman would be best off coming from Africa.

Where all the candidates seem to agree is that the WTO risks losing is relevance if it fails to reignite the Doha trading talks that started way before even Lamy's leadership, in 2001. "The reality is that the round at this point in time is paralysing the system and we have to solve it," argued the Brazilian candidate, Roberto Azevedo, who is currently the fast-growing economic powerhouse's envoy to the WTO.

The next Doha-round talks, rather confusingly, take place in Bali at the end of the year. The ambition is to lower trade barriers, but there have been many causes of fierce debate, particularly around agriculture, that have largely divided mature Western economies and those that are just finding their feet on the world stage.

Last year, the WTO warned that there was a global trend towards protectionism, citing 182 measures introduced to restrict or potentially restrict trade over a nine-month period as evidence. Although the new WTO head can expect some significant progress at the December talks, it seems as if the plan to get a single agreement across so many national interests – in markets as broad as agriculture, goods and services – was simply too ambitious.

The danger for the WTO is that it continues to be ignored by major economies that instead sign bilateral or multilateral trade agreements. Indeed, these will be the sort of negotiations that the UK would possibly have to conduct with the EU if the country should exit the bloc.

However, if the new WTO DG can succeed in getting through some sort of watered-down pact in Bali, as many believe is possible, he or she would be lauded for cutting through international red tape, which could boost the world economy by an estimated $1trn (£635bn). Immediately, they would be feted as a major figure on the world stage.

As a result, the British government must ensure that it picks the winner in this closely fought race, the field for which will soon narrow down to a handful of candidates.

If the new head of the WTO can finally come up with a successful conclusion to some of the most protracted trade talks in history, then the UK cannot afford for this person to be as unclear as Lamy on the country's trading future.

Doubts from someone with that kind of political and economic weight could lead to potential trading partners looking away from the UK.

The candidates

1 Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen (Ghana)

A former ambassador to the US, Mr Kyerematen is supported by the African Union bloc

2 Anabel GonzAlez (Costa Rica)

Ms Gonzalez knows the WTO well, having headed up its agriculture and commodities division from 2006 to 2009

3 Mari Elka Pangestu (Indonesia)

The 56-year-old has been Indonesia's minister for tourism and creative economy since October 2011

4 Tim Groser (New Zealand)

Born in Scotland in 1950, the Kiwi politician was New Zealand's ambassador to the WTO from 2002 to 2005

5 Amina C Mohamed (Kenya)

This lawyer could spoil Mr Kyerematen's candidacy should some African states back the east over the west coast

6 Ahmad Thougan Hindawi (Jordan)

This 47-year-old Birmingham University post-graduate helped lead Jordan's economic liberalisation

7 Herminio Blanco (Mexico)

This economist was in the Mexican government for 15 years to 2000, but has since worked in the private sector

8 Taeho Bark (Republic of Korea)

South Korea's trade minister has published numerous books and papers on economics and trade policy

9 Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo (Brazil)

This 55-year-old career diplomat was the last of the nine nominated as a candidate last month

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Customer Service Executive / Inbound Customer Service Agent

£18 - 23k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Customer Service Executiv...

ASP.NET Web Developer / .NET Developer

£60 - 65k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a ASP.NET Web Developer / ....

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Project Coordinator - 12 month contract

£27000 - £32000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large charity ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album