WTO chief announces his resignation in light of the global economic recession and the escalation of trade disputes, while Trump pushed for radical reforms

The Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, announced that he will resign from his post at the end of August, that is, a year before the end of his second term, as the global economy faces a recession crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is a personal decision – a family decision – and I am convinced that this decision is in the interest of the organization,” Azevedo said during a virtual meeting with representatives of all members of the organization.

“I have no political plans,” he added, while some say he aspires to fight the presidential battle in 2022 against President Jair Bolsonaro.

The early departure comes at a time when the global economy is suffering from the largest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, as international trade was severely affected by the pandemic of the emerging Coronavirus, which caused the collapse of production and trade.

Meanwhile, the 164-member organization is already in crisis since before the pandemic, as trade disputes intensified as the United States led by Donald Trump pushed for sweeping reforms.

For example, the World Trade Organization has had to suspend the Court of Appeals for the Dispute Settlement Authority since December 11 because of the United States, which has been blocking the appointment of judges since 2017, which prevents a quorum that requires the presence of three judges.

Sebastian Jean, head of the CIB Research Center, told AFP that the departure of Azevedo “comes in a very bad period for the organization and under a very precarious trade regime”.

He pointed to “the existing tensions, especially the harsh criticism directed by the American President, the violation of many agreements, the trade war between the United States and China, and the paralysis of the Appeals Panel”.

He also deplored the numerous trade measures taken in response to the Covid-19 crisis, including a wide range of export restrictions.

Roberto Azevedo, 62, a seasoned diplomat who headed the organization in 2013 to succeed French Pascal Lamy, started his second four-year term in September 2017.

His term was supposed to end at the end of August 2021.

Before heading the WTO, Azevedo has served since 2008 as the permanent representative of Brazil to this organization where he has earned his reputation as a consensual negotiator.

He headed his country’s delegation in the main differences that Brazil won in the World Trade Organization: in the case of cotton against the United States and the issue of subsidies to export sugar against the European Union.

During his first term, he devoted much effort to trying to conclude trade agreements that had reached a long impasse.

For nearly two decades, the World Trade Organization has failed to conclude the Doha Round of trade liberalization talks.

However, during the Azevedo era, WTO members made a conclusion of any first-ever multilateral agreement when they reached an agreement in Bali in late 2013 on reforming global customs procedures.

But countries have since failed to reach any other multilateral agreements, including on subsidizing the fishing sector, and since 2017 the World Trade Organization has been struggling to deal with a US administration openly hostile to its pluralistic approach.

Since Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House, the world body and its president have been witnessing, unable to do anything, the trade war between the United States and China and the European Union.

The United States also urges the World Trade Organization to review the status of China, which according to Washington is using its position as a developing country to achieve an economic advantage.

It remains to be seen who will replace Azevedo, but many observers are already betting on a candidate from Africa, not from within the organization.

A diplomatic source told AFP that there appears to be a clear “consensus” that the candidate to take over in the World Trade Organization must not come from “a major economic power”, and certainly not from China or the United States, in light of the trade war between them.

Roberto Azevedo told the diplomats that submitting his departure would allow them to quickly choose his successor without affecting the preparations for the 12th Ministerial Conference next year.