World Bank kingmaker allays misgivings about Wolfowitz

Despite a reaction by European public opinion to President Bush’s recent nomination of Iraqi war architect Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank (more than 1,300 humanitarian organizations signed a petition protesting Wolfowitz’s selection), it is clear that European Union member states had no real desire to veto the move. However, Europeans expressed their concerns and obtained important commitments from the new head of the World Bank. Before his election, Wolfowitz had extensive meetings with eight members of the executive directors’ council, which represents European countries and which issued a common statement – something that has happened for the first time – on how the new president of the organization must proceed in his new capacity. Biaggio Bossone, executive director of the World Bank for several countries including Greece, Italy, Portugal and Malta, was a prominent player in the backstage deliberations that led to the acceptance of Wolfowitz’s nomination, helping perhaps more than any other individual to shape a common European stance. In the following interview with Kathimerini, Bossone explains why it was important for Europe to have one voice on the matter and why Wolfowitz is a good choice. How was this unusual procedure of meetings with the European group and the European joint statement created? I attach great importance to my work at the bank, which is to strengthen the coordination of the representatives of the EU countries on the board. In fact, I am very proud of this because I wanted a mechanism of coordination when I joined the board a year and a half ago. I believe that Europe should increasingly seek to speak with one voice, or common voices. That’s the objective. The positive thing is that since we started this coordination exercise the mechanism has improved a lot. And it has become practice. We meet regularly, weekly, and we discuss all major issues that concern the bank and on various occasions we have already produced common statements on the board. The most recent occasion was the one you mentioned, the statement on the board for the selection of the president. That’s an unusual move… Very unusual. On other occasions we came to the board with a common statement, but it’s the first time it has become public. Let me tell you the background. Because when we discussed as the European group how to approach the US candidacy, my suggestion, which was accepted by my colleagues, was that we should meet with candidate Wolfowitz as a European group rather than individuals. It was your proposal… It was my proposal, it was first supported by the UK very strongly, and then all others followed. Because I thought it was very important to give to the new president – he was then a candidate, but the only candidate – a signal that there was a European presence, a significant presence in fact. That actually proved to be very effective. We had a meeting with him and we asked him a number of questions on the way he will approach the new job, but we were very clear in that meeting – and that was an informal meeting – that Europe was there and that we want a strong representation in the bank. And also we actually convinced Mr Wolfowitz to come to Europe and meet with our (bank) governors. It was organized by the European presidency of Luxembourg; we asked him to visit Europe before the board met to select the president. The third thing was the common statement in the board, where we took the opportunity to express to the board the European view. I think it was a pretty effective response by the EU directors, given that basically there was never a real appetite for opposing or vetoing the US proposal. But there were concerns. Yes, there were concerns, but no real appetite… There was a clear attitude of questioning the candidate to see exactly how he would approach the new job. And in that respect I can tell you that Mr Wolfowitz was extremely capable and skillful in reassuring us, and most of the board, on a number of key questions. One, for instance, was that he will strongly respect and protect the multilateralism of the bank. He made that point clear: This is a multilateral institution and (he said) I want to preserve that, to work for this multilateral feature of the bank. The second thing is that Mr Wolfowitz made clear that he would cease to be a US official and would become an international civil servant. And this is important. He mentioned that he wants to work for the whole membership. He accepts and intends to bring forward the mission of the bank, which is fighting poverty and promoting development. He believes that this is the right mission and this is the right institution to carry out that mission. He believes that the legacy of Mr Wolfensohn (the outgoing World Bank president) is important and is to be preserved. He reassured staff that he is not coming to the bank to downsize it, or to restructure it or to reinvent the wheel. So he wants to reassure staff who, as you probably know, had concerns on these issues. The other important signal is that he is ready to listen, he is ready to learn, and, of course, he is not shy as a person in making decisions, but he believes that it is important for him first to learn – which I think is an exercise in humility that is necessary for anybody that is going to take on this responsibility. You need to know the bank first, you need to know the mission, you need to know the countries. I am sure that Mr Wolfowitz will have ideas, will at some point make public his priorities. Fine; he is the new leader. But first of all he has to learn the job, and I am sure he will do that. Second, he will have to think and accept that he will not just decide by himself, there will be a board. That’s another thing that he mentioned, that he wants to have a continuous dialogue, a constructive dialogue with the board.