Liam Fox, Britain’s former international trade secretary, will be nominated by the UK to be the next head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the government’s Department for International Trade has confirmed.
Fox was a cabinet minister in Theresa May’s government between July 2016 and July 2019, and has been a Conservative MP since 1992.
He is known as a prominent supporter of Brexit, and said in a 2017 interview that the UK’s free trade deal with the EU after leaving should be the “easiest in human history”.
The government described Fox as “the ideal candidate” to lead the WTO and listed his attributes including his advocacy for multilateralism, his “decades of experience in global politics, as well as first-hand experience of running a trade ministry” and his belief that global prosperity and security are underpinned by rules-based free trade.
However, Fox is expected to face a challenge garnering support for his nomination from other countries, especially from the EU, none of whose members have put forward a candidate.
He was criticised during his time as international trade secretary for suggesting the UK would have up to 40 trade deals ready immediately after it leaves the EU. The UK has 20 such deals in place, according to the Department for International Trade’s website.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said Fox “has firsthand experience of the political and technical challenges of negotiating trade agreements, and the reforms that are needed to ensure the global trading system truly delivers for all WTO members”.
Fox said he was honoured to be nominated and stated that the task for the organisation was to “update. Strengthen and reform” to remain relevant and vibrant. He added: “We must ensure that global trade works for everyone.”
The SNP criticised Fox’s nomination for the WTO top job, accusing Johnson’s government of letting ideology trump competence.
Stewart Hosie MP, the party’s shadow international trade secretary, said: “It is deeply concerning that at a time when the UK should be working with international partners, it is instead continuing its march towards isolationism by backing a candidate who doesn’t appear to know how complex trade and negotiations work – with his only credential for the role being that he is an ardent Brexiter.”
The WTO is looking for a new director general, after the Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo announced in May that he was quitting a year before the end of his term. He is due to step down at the end of August.
The 62-year-old has served as director general since September 2013 and had been due to conclude his second four-year term in August 2021.
Azevêdo said it was a personal decision to leave early, and that the timing allowed for his successor to be chosen well before WTO council meetings next year.
The 25-year-old WTO is designed to help negotiate multilateral trade deals, while also monitoring trade flows and helping to settle international trade disputes through its resolution body.
However, there have not been any major international agreements on trade from the 164-member organisation since the Doha round negotiations were abandoned in 2015.
The search for a new director general comes at a crucial time for the organisation, with cooperation between governments under severe strain and protectionism on the rise.
Donald Trump’s administration has blocked the appointment of appeals judges to the WTO’s appellate body, the ultimate arbiter of trade disputes. Azevêdo is also understood to be frustrated by the battle over import tariffs between the US and China.
The trade war between the world’s two largest economies impacted global activity in 2019, while experts have warned that the downturn in trade caused by the coronavirus could accelerate the unwinding of globalisation.
The pandemic has also knocked global trade, pushing international imports and exports to their lowest level in at least four years, according to WTO trade figures released in May.
Six countries have nominated a candidate to be the WTO’s director general, and 8 July is the deadline for nominations.
Fox’s nomination was first confirmed on Twitter by the political editor of the Spectator magazine.
The news will be a disappointment for Peter Mandelson, the former EU trade commissioner and former British business secretary in Gordon Brown’s Labour government, who had expressed interest in the role, according to the Financial Times.
Lord Mandelson was reportedly informed by the government that he would not be nominated as he is not a supporter of Brexit.