EU divided: Phil Hogan bid for WTO top job sparks fear of blow to Brussels’ world standing

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The EU’s trade commissioner has emerged at a potential candidate to replace director-general Roberto Azevedo when he steps down at the end of August. The Irishman is understood to have secured the backing of his European Commission colleagues but member states are set to voice their concerns about the move. European sources said a joint effort to propel Mr Hogan into the WTO’s hot seat is a “high stakes gamble” that could easily backfire on the bloc.

While capitals see merit in strengthening the Organisation because of the growing trade tensions between the United States and China, a growing group of countries are understood to doubt whether the EU’s current trade chief is the right man for the job.

One question raised is over how Mr Hogan’s international reputation could be damaged by a failed bid to become the WTO’s next director-general.

An EU diplomat said: “Does Hogan failing weaken his credibility on the international stage?”

They added that Brussels could be taken less seriously in future trade negotiations if their efforts are led by a failed WTO candidate.

Another source said the Irishman’s flawed relationship with US trade representative Robert Lighthizer is just one of the stumbling blocks.

Ireland is concerned that Mr Hogan moving to the Geneva-based outfit would weaken the country’s influence on the post-Brexit talks with the UK.

The Irishman has held almost weekly meetings with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator with the EU, since the start of the negotiations.

His departure could prompt a reshuffle of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s top team, potentially leaving Dublin without what is considered a marquee portfolio.

An EU official said: “It’s absolutely not a given that it would be the trade portfolio.

“These things are not inherited by the country.”

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Brussels has long pushed for WTO reform, and is keen to put forward a joint candidate that has the backing of member states.

Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya, who has experience as an official at the WTO, could also be put forward.

EU trade ministers met today in order to start their selection process with governments given until July 8 to put forward a candidate.

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After the showdown, Mr Hogan said he is “exploring the option of being a candidate for the director-general of the WTO”.

He added: “Certainly, I think there is an important about of work to be done to reform organisation.

“There is certainly the potential for an EU candidate to be put forward.

“The majority of member states spoke today in favour of a single European candidate.”

The WTO’s is aiming to find a consensus candidate between its 160 member governments.

It is understood that Washington is not keen about the idea of a European director-general.

The US has reservations over whether an EU candidate could be an honest broker amid the transatlantic trade tensions.

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