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Europe's Lamy Named New WTO Leader

Thomas Kohlmann (jam)
May 26, 2005

After a process lasting several months, Pascal Lamy has been appointed director-general of the World Trade Organization. The 58-year-old Frenchman has some tough challenges ahead of him.

He's got the job, and a lot on his plateImage: AP

WTO members officially named Lamy as the organization's new leader at their meeting on Thursday. The former European Union Trade Commissioner beat three other rivals for this coveted post. WTO members nominated Lamy after Uraguayan diplomat, Carlos Perez del Castillo, dropped out.

The Chairman of the General Council, Kenyan Ambassador Amina Mohamed, said the process leading to Lamy's nomination went smoothly.

"I think that we have proved that the organization works, that the members take their commitments and their responsibilities seriously and they have come through on a very serious issue, selecting a director general for the organization," she said.

In 1999 the WTO was unable to agree upon a candidate for its director general. After a lengthy, bitter battle, the organization finally split the post between Mike Moore of New Zealand and Supachai Panitchpadki (photo) of Thailand. Each man was given a three-year term. This time around, WTO delegates were able to avoid a similar confrontation.

While serving as the European Union's Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy often gave the impression that he would like the EU to do more to cut back its multi-billion-euro subsidies for agriculture. However, politics in Brussels apparently got in the way.

Supachai Panitchpakdi
World Trade Organization (WTO) General Director Supachai Panitchpakdi, right, from ThailandImage: AP

"Medieval" organization

Now he says that concluding the stalled global trade talks known as the Doha Round is his highest priority. The talks have been held up largely by bickering over the highly protected agricultural markets in the US and Europe. When the WTO members in Cancun failed to reach an agreement, Lamy was highly critical.

"This organization is medieval. The procedures, the rules of this organization cannot support the weight of its task," he said at the time. "There's no reliable way to steer discussions among 148 members in a manner conducive to consensus, which remains the rule of this organization."

Educated at France's elite universities Lamy has been a close ally of Jacques Delors, the former chief commissioner of the European Union. Lamy has a reputation of being extremely ambitious. When he resigned from his job as the EU's trade commissioner in 2004 he made it clear that he thought he deserved an even more prestigious post.

Pascal Lamy
Pascal LamyImage: AP

Despite his image as being a European technocrat and career diplomat, Lamy likes to surprise. In Cancun he discussed trade issues with NGOs for hours wearing blue jeans and a plain shirt. At a WTO summit in Qatar he paid a visit to the "Rainbow Warrior," the trademark of Greenpeace.

At times, he must have regretted saying his medieval remark about the organization and addressed it obliquely when journalists asked him why he wanted the job as head of the WTO so badly.

"I mean, if you need evidence that I was not thinking about pitching for this job, you have one," he said.

Attention to developing world

As the head of the WTO Lamy will have to show that he no longer represents only Europe or the industrialized nations. Though he was instrumental in brokering last summer's reform of EU farm subsidies, Lamy has also spearheaded European resistance to such change.

Proteste gegen WTO
Protesters display two mock playing cards during a rally Friday, April 15, 2005 in Manila, Philippines, opposing the forthcoming World Trade Organizations conferences.Image: AP

Many WTO members, particularly developing nations, are counting on the Frenchman's qualities as a facilitator and as being just the right person to talk rich nations into opening up their markets for imports from poorer countries.

"What I believe the WTO can do is make trade work more for development," he said. "Build rules and implement them in a way which makes the developing countries feel that they are beneficiaries and not victims of the system. This is, I think, the crucial issue."

Now he faces the daunting task of wrapping up the Doha Round of Free Trade Talks by the end of 2006. His first task will be to prepare for the next ministerial conference in Hong Kong in December. That conference is due to approve a draft deal on lowering trade barriers.

Textilindustrie in China
Image: AP

Also looming large is how to handle the growing trade power of China, displayed most recently in its surging clothes and textile exports, which are threatening to unleash a wave of protectionist measures in rival countries, both rich and poor.

He must also handle mounting tensions between the European Union and the United States, the world's two economic superpowers, over subsidies to their main plane makers, which could trigger the biggest trade row ever.

"Lamy is going to need to be very clever and very patient," trade analyst David Woods told Reuters.