SUNS  4358 Friday 22 January 1998

Trade: Another term for Ruggiero?

Geneva, 20 Jan (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- A new headcount and ranking of support for each of the four candidates in the run for the WTO top job, and indications that a "not negligible number" of members could object to one or the other, has made the WTO succession process murky.

And there has been some talk that there would be an impasse, and the incumbent Renato Ruggiero might be asked to continue, and would probably agree if asked by key Heads of State including US President Bill Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac.

The new head count, of first and second preference choices for each candidate, and indication that some could be blocked, was given to a formal meeting of the General Council Wednesday by the sole facilitator, Amb. William Rossier of Switzerland who had held a new round of consultations on 13, 14 and 15 January.

Before the outcome of this new headcount was announced to WTO membership, but after completion of the Rossier consultations, on 19 January the French newspaper Le Figaro in a report (by its Geneva correspondent, M. Laurent Mossu who has a reputation for good news sources in the WTO and the EU) had raised the possibility of Ruggiero being continued.

Such an outcome is discounted by many, with some developing countries voicing their criticism in informal conclaves but not in the General Council, and a few continuing to talk of a decision by vote by the 30 April deadline or allowing Ruggiero to retire as he has announced he wants to, leaving the post vacant for a while, and the secretariat run by a senior or group of senior officials.

But some trade officials and key diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that such a course is unlikely, and feel that Ruggiero may be asked to continue, and he will do so only for another fixed term, may be of two years.

The preparatory process for the next ministerial meeting end December, and the need for a successful outcome and launch of a new round of negotiations in agriculture, services, and other new and old issues would be given as a reason for such a course, these diplomats said.

The way the issues and process are being handled is going to do great harm to the WTO, the Figaro said, and cited in the overall balance-sheet the US-EC major disputes and fights over bananas and beef hormone-treated cattle, and inability of both to take a stand on the four candidates, and the WTO unable to choose a successor without the US-EC support, and the Third World countries (who command a very large majority inside the 133-member WTO) fighting among themselves and unable to exploit the differences among majors or to assert themselves.

After the Wednesday General Council meeting, there was serious talk that none of the four candidates would make it -- either not garnering a big enough majority support or the US or any of the EU members blocking one or the other candidate.

In such an event, it was suggested, incumbent Renato Ruggiero, whose terms (along with that of his deputies) expires on 30 April, may be asked to continue, but that Ruggiero would want a specific term.

Till December, the WTO's spokesman Keith Rockwell had insisted that Ruggiero would definitely lay down office at the end of his term (30 April), and that he was scheduled to sail off on a cruise ship from Southampton (in the UK) on that date. For the record Wednesday, the new sailing date was given out as 15 May.

Other trade officials said that if a deadlock develops and no one is chosen, and if President Clinton or Jacques Chirac or some one in that position rings up Ruggiero and asks him to continue, Ruggiero can't refuse and walk away leaving the secretariat "headless", but that he would not continue (like Sutherland did in 1995) for a short period, but would want a new term.

When Ruggiero was chosen in 1995, it was on the specific basis that he would have one fixed 4-year term, and not seek a second term, and that his successor would be from outside Europe (with developing countries at that time believing this meant it would be a Third World person).

It is possible that everyone would agree on one of the four, and the US or the EU would not block a candidate commanding majority support. But if there is an impasse, and Ruggiero is continued, how so ever it is presented, the WTO's image and credibility among the public, and particularly in the developing world, will take a major hit.

The new head count made public in press briefings by the WTO, (and the detailed statement of Rossier that was made available to the members, but withheld from the media, unlike the earlier two reports by Celso Lafer and Rossier) brought out:

* the Thai Deputy Prime Minister, Supachai leading with 40 first preferences, followed by 23 for Abouyoub of Morocco, 15 for MacLaren of Canada and 13 for Mike Moore of New Zealand;

* on basis of second preferences, Moore edged forward to the top of the list with 26 votes, Supachai with 19, Abouyoub with eight and Maclaren with five.

* while the great majority were willing to join the consensus whatever the final choice, a "not negligible number" said they would not be in a position to join automatically in a consensus if it formed around a candidate other than those for whom they have indicated a first or second preference.

Of the 133 members, 28 (12 with offices in Geneva, and others outside) did not respond to contacts by Rossier.

There have been some competent trade observers, who, from the start of the selection process (of choosing one among the four nominees) and the talk of a candidate from the South taking the post), have seen it as a charade for public consumption, and that at the end the two major trading entities (the US and EU+EC) would block each other's choice or any developing country candidate, and ask Ruggiero to continue at least till end of 1999 (when the 3rd Ministerial meeting is to be held in the
USA), and a new round of negotiations with old and new issues are sought to be launched.

While trade diplomats and officials till recently dismissed such talk, after Wednesday's formal meeting of the General Council (where Rossier provided a report on his new round of consultations), and unofficial reports from out of Washington and Brussels, some key trade diplomats and officials were no longer ready to rule out this possibility.

Initially, in announcing his retirement and inviting the WTO General Council to select a successor, Ruggiero had indicated he would be happy if a successor could be named by end of the month, and in effect suggesting he would even leave earlier than 30 April.

But in late November, in announcing the moves for WTO symposia on Trade and Environment and Trade and Development (to be held in end March), the WTO spokesman had said Ruggiero would be organizing and chairing them, as desired by the membership.

And Wednesday, trade officials were suggesting that many WTO members are requesting him to stay on and complete the preparations for the 3rd Ministerial and the launching of the new negotiations.

The Rossier report text, obtained from WTO members at the meeting, showed him as stating that the WTO was now at a "different stage" of the decision-making process than in November, and questions had been posed to members well enough in advance.

"Unfortunately," he said, "I have been forced to recognize that certain delegations are still not in a position to give a clear reply to the questions asked. They gave me comments, orientations and tendencies, but not clear answers. Some other delegations did inform me of their position but stated that they formally reserved the right to change that position if certain developments were to occur.

"Consequently," added Rossier, "I will not be able to give you a definitive report until I am in possession of important information still lacking today."

The members were asked about the preference of their authorities among the four for appointment by consensus.

A second question posed was of the second preference for appointment by consensus, if the first choice did not get a consensus. The third question was about the views on the remaining  candidates.

Rossier reported that a large number of delegations confined themselves to replying only to the first of the questions posed, while some others replied only on their first and second preferences, but not the third question. While a great majority of those who responded to the third said they could join in a consensus whatever their final choice, a "not negligible" number on the contrary said they would not be able to join automatically in a consensus formed around a candidate, not their first
or second preference, and would want to be consulted again in such an event. This was also the position of those who indicated only their first preference.

The Rossier report also said that in terms of geographical distribution, Thailand's Supachai enjoyed the broadest support in the first and second preferences, and spread across all continents. The
second broadest and "worldwide" (term used by Rossier) went to Moore, while Abouyoub's support was "essentially, but not exclusively", regional. MacLaren's position was similar, but more pronounced, as that of Abouyoub.

In the comments and statements that followed, according to some trade diplomats, Mexico, supported by Jamaica wanted the suspension of the meeting for reflection, while Egypt said the position was now more clear and transparent. The EC said the EU had difficulties, but not
giving up on choosing a single candidate.

Zimbabwe, for African group, insisted that the next Director-General must come from the four on the slate.

Pakistan in effect suggested that the Rossier process was now complete.
Amb. Weekes of Canada, Chairman of the Council, said it was clear the Council was in a new phase and it must move at a faster pace.

The Council is to meet on 26 January.

The informal developing country group is due to meet Thursday afternoon.

Some European sources noted that both the USTR Mme Barshevsky and the EC Commissioner and Vice-President, Sir Leon Brittan would be at the Davos Symposium next week, and the two could reach a modus vivendi.

[Mr. Renato Ruggiero, the WTO head, it was confirmed, would not attend the symposium.]

But other EC sources noted that the EU council of ministers, at their meeting in Brussels on 15 January, had been deadlocked on the choice, and Brittan (who personally favoured MacLaren) had not been helpful in facilitating an EU decision.

According to these sources, and some trade diplomats in Geneva, at the EU meeting in Brussels, the 15 EU members were divided with some favouring Supachai and others Abouyoub. It was then suggested that the EU should atleast take a stand of a choice from among the developing country candidates (Supachai and Abouyoub).

However, the UK (which, initially had supported MacLaren, and when MacLaren was found trailing last in earlier consultations, had been reported as having advised Bangkok that it now favoured Supachai), announced at the Brussels meeting that it supported MacLaren. And an official of Brittan's division of the EC secretariat said there was no hurry for the EU to take a decision, and there was enough time.

Some EC sources said the UK change of mind, was at the instance of US which sought its support on MacLaren as a second choice.

Some other sources said that while the US has now come out more openly for Michael Moore, it has not specifically said so, but that the USTR is expected to instruct the US representatives here to advise Rossier that the first preference of the US was for Moore and the second for MacLaren. At the same time, US officials were said to be advising some of its friends and supporters keen to launch a new round, including agriculture, that it would be difficult to get support from Congress
for a new round and fast track, if the WTO is headed by a personality from the South. The sources said all this could mean that if the US cannot get is way on Moore, it would use the Congress to withhold support for Supachai or Abouyoub, and agree to Ruggiero continuing at least till end of the year and the launch of new negotiations.

Some developing countries are saying they would call for a decision by vote before 30 April or if this is not accepted allow Ruggiero leave and allow the secretariat without a head, until one is chosen.

But some others doubt they will say this at the WTO Council, and formally stand by it, denying a consensus for Ruggiero extension, if the US and EC move for it.