South Africa


SA and EU move towards rebuilding frayed relations

The European Union’s ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, Riina Kionka. (Photo: EPA / Jose Sena Goulao)

South Africa and the European Union took a big step towards rebuilding their rather neglected relationship this week when they held their first ministerial conference in four years.

South Africa is the EU’s only “strategic partner” in Africa and one of only 10 in the world, yet a combination of factors, including a cooling of relations during the troubled Zuma presidency, have kept them from fully developing the partnership.

“Strategic partners should speak more often,” EU ambassador to South Africa Riina Kionka told Daily Maverick after Tuesday’s meeting. “And we have a lot to talk about.” 

She noted that the last ministerial conference had been in 2016 – although the last summit between President Cyril Ramaphosa and the EU’s council and commission presidents had taken place in 2018.

The meeting was important for the South African ministers and their EU counterparts to get to know each other better as well as to tackle problems. The meeting, held by video because of the coronavirus pandemic, was co-chaired by SA’s International Relations and Co-operation Minister, Naledi Pandor, and her EU counterpart, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and vice-president of the European Commission.

They had met in person once before, at the Raisina Dialogue in India in January, Kionka said. 

She said the meeting covered a wide range of political, economic, environmental and social issues. But trade took up about 60 to 70% of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, she said, with “trade irritants” to the relationship figuring prominently. 

The meeting had been particularly important to bring together South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel, and EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan, who had been battling to align their diaries for some time.

Eventually, they had held two preparatory meetings over the last week and then the full ministerial meeting on Tuesday. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and EU International Co-operation Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen also attended. 

Kionka said the ministerial conference discussion had three basic components. The first was working together in the international sphere. The EU believes it is especially important to boost co-operation this year, as South Africa is both on the UN Security Council and chairs the African Union. 

The second component was about broad economic policies and building a better, just, post-Covid transition towards a greener global economy.

The third component of the discussions was trade. “And quite a few issues remain. But there was progress.”

The two sides agreed to co-operate more on international issues, particularly on the UN Security Council, where South Africa is a non-permanent member until the end of this year – and especially because it is chairing the AU. The main areas of co-operation are on women, peace and security which are a big priority for South Africa. It includes greater participation of women in resolving conflicts as well as taking more effective measures to prevent violence, including sexual violence, against women and girls in conflict. The EU side was impressed with Pandor’s disclosure that 15% of South Africa’s UN peacekeepers are women, Kionka said.

South Africa had also driven a successful resolution advancing the women, peace and security agenda when it held the Security Council presidency in October 2019. 

The meeting also discussed Zimbabwe, Libya, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan as countries of particular concern. 

“I wouldn’t say either side convinced the other to switch its positions,” Kionka said. “But it was useful to hear each other’s views.”

The issue of Western sanctions against Zimbabwe came up. South Africa has issued frequent calls on the West to drop these. 

Borrell had expressed the EU’s frustration that its measures against Zimbabwe were still being characterised as “sanctions” when it no longer imposes sanctions against any Zimbabwean individual and only maintains an arms embargo against the country. 

Patel had made the point that the EU had enjoyed an overall trade surplus with South Africa over the past 10 years. 

Kionka said the Pandor had previously said that she understood what the sanctions entailed but that they still continued to have a chilling effect on investment in sanctions. 

“Our view is that the easiest way to improve relations is for Zimbabwe to get back in the programme on human rights,” Kionka said, though adding that the EU understood the regional political pressure South Africa was under to raise the issue. 

The EU described what it was doing to try to build a better, greener economy after Covid-19. Earlier this year, Frans Timmermans, EU first vice-president and commissioner for its Green Deal, had said during a visit to South Africa that the EU needed to do more to support developing countries to adapt to climate change if it wanted their support for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions at the next international climate conference, due later this year. 

At this week’s meeting, Urpilainen had also acknowledged that the EU needed to “pay more attention to adaptation,” Kionka said. 

Mboweni briefed the EU that he expected the South African economy to shrink by 7.3% this year because of Covid-19 and explained how South Africa was focusing on trying to create new jobs and supporting small- and medium-sized businesses. 

… the EU had failed to persuade South Africa to lift the sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions it had been using to completely block imports of poultry from Belgium and France since 2017.

The two sides agreed that the increased reliance on e-commerce during the pandemic should be hard-wired into their economies “so that next time we are in a better position”.

The most robust and “pithy” discussion had been on “trade irritants”, Kionka said, including the steep increases in tariffs which South Africa had recently imposed on chicken imports from the EU. These had risen from 0% to 35% in September 2018, before dropping to 25% in March 2022. She confirmed that the EU had registered a dispute about those through the dispute settlement mechanism of the trade agreement between the EU and the SADC region. But so far there had been no headway, Kionka said. 

But she said South Africa had scored a victory on another important issue because, in response to the logistical challenges posed by Covid-19, the EU and South Africa had now all agreed to accept electronic certificates (instead of the usual paper ones) to verify the origin of all traded products and also the health and phytosanitary (plant health) requirements for all animal and plant products from both sides. An official added that South Africa had insisted that all required processes to re-authorise exports to the EU of racehorses and heated game and poultry meat had to be finalised as soon as possible. 

Conversely, though, the EU had failed to persuade South Africa to lift the sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions it had been using to completely block imports of poultry from Belgium and France since 2017.

“Minister Patel is a pretty tough negotiator,” she remarked. 

She noted that Patel had made the point that the EU had enjoyed an overall trade surplus with South Africa over the past 10 years. 

“What he didn’t say was that South Africa has enjoyed a surplus in that period on agrofoods.”

The two sides also failed to settle a “rules of origin” issue which arose out of Britain’s departure from the EU earlier this year, particularly relating to automobile exports from South Africa. Before Brexit, South Africa could incorporate components from the UK and from other EU member states into its autos and still enjoy duty-free access into the EU market.

With the UK out of the EU, the existing rules in the EU-SADC Economic Partnership Agreement did not allow duty-free access of SA-manufactured products such as autos into its market if they incorporated significant UK components.

Hogan and Patel had agreed that any trade restrictions on the importing of medical supplies to fight the pandemic now should be “targeted, temporary and transparent”. 

Kionka said the problem now was that this issue was closely connected to the EU’s continuing trade negotiations with the UK. So any agreement which the EU made with SA could show its hand to the UK in those negotiations.

“There is a lot of goodwill on both sides. But it’s a big chunk for the EU and so we asked for a bit of patience,” Kionka said.

The then-SA trade minister Rob Davies remarked two years ago that the loss of duty-free access would make auto exports uncompetitive for South Africa in the UK and EU markets.

The two sides had also not completely resolved a few differences over the tough negotiations now underway in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), including on reforms to the troubled organisation which governs global trade, Kionka said. 

An EU official explained that: While there was convergence of views on the fragility of supply chains as exposed by the crisis, the EU believes that stronger multilateral rules can help in making supply chains more resilient and sustainable, while South Africa does not believe there is need for more rules.” 

Hogan had made a strong push for more free and fair trade as the driver of a post-Covid global economic recovery. Patel had concurred to a certain degree, although adding that the world should not do anything now to fight the pandemic that it would regret later on. 

Hogan and Patel had agreed that any trade restrictions on the importing of medical supplies to fight the pandemic now should be “targeted, temporary and transparent”. 

An EU official explained that an export restriction system for personal protective equipment was lifted in the EU on 26 May 2020, while it continues in South Africa, though for an increasingly restricted number of items.

Kionka said at the end Pandor had proposed that South Africa host the next SA-EU summit – the ninth – next year, probably during the first half. 

“It was an important meeting,” she concluded, about this week’s engagement. “We hadn’t met for a long time. We need to talk more often to give more content to the strategic partnership. The EU feels a real need to beef up this partnership.” 

Whether or not that would happen depended on both sides continuing to take concrete steps towards it.

She recalled that Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister regarded as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, had not set out to create the EU as it is today. He is honoured for agreeing to place France and Germany’s production of coal and steel under a single international authority, a key milestone towards the European Coal and Steel Community, which then evolved into the EU. DM


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