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UK sees ‘room for compromise’ with US over WTO

GENEVA: Britain’s first post-Brexit international trade secretary Liam Fox removes his protective face mask as he arrives for a press conference on Friday in Geneva following his hearing before 164 member states’ representatives, as part of the application process to head the World Trade Organization (WTO) as Director General. — AFP

GENEVA: A Briton seeking to lead the World Trade Organization voiced confidence Friday that a compromise could be reached with Washington to revive the organization’s crippled appeals panel.

Britain’s first post-Brexit international trade secretary Liam Fox, one of eight candidates vying to become the WTO’s next director-general, insisted the dispute settlement system could be fixed. “I believe from my discussions with my American colleagues that they do wish to see that resolution mechanism in place and I think there is room for compromise,” he told media after meeting representatives from the WTO’s 164 member states.

The appellate branch of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body, sometimes called the supreme court of world trade, stopped functioning in December after years of relentless US opposition. Washington accuses the court of major overreach and has blocked appointments of new judges, leaving it without a quorum of three needed to hear cases.

Fox said the US position was “not something that I’m unsympathetic to”, suggesting that curbing the panel’s mandate might be a way forward. But he emphasized the importance of a functioning dispute settlement system with the possibility to appeal decisions, warning that without it, the WTO system faced an “existential” threat.

Fox, who was the last candidate to be grilled by member states, dismissed questions about whether Brexit might weaken support for him among European countries. “Not everyone in the world sees every issue through the Brexit prism,” he said, adding “I hope the EU will choose a candidate who is most in line with the values and the aspirations for global trade that the EU has.”

Existential crisis

The WTO is moving swiftly to replace director-general Roberto Azevedo. In a surprise move, the Brazilian diplomat announced in mid-May that he would end his second term 12 months early for personal reasons. The contest comes as the global trade body faces an existential crisis in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting global economic crisis.

Candidate’s countries and regions of origin have become a focus during the selection process.

Earlier Friday, former Saudi economy minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri insisted that his country’s trade disputes and long-running blockade of neighboring Qatar would not impact his position were he to become director-general. “I am here representing myself… I will be very neutral,” he told AFP. “Qatar is a full member of the WTO. It will have from my point of view exactly the same treatment as any member,” said Tuwaijri, who wants to become the organization’s first director-general from an Arab country. Three candidates from Africa are also arguing it is time their continent got a shot. — AFP

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