20th Mar 2023

South Africa summit sheds light on EU 'strategic partnerships'

A meeting between EU leaders and South African President Jacob Zuma has shed light on how the union aims to use "strategic partnerships" to shape world events, as well as the limits of its friendship with the young democracy.

Speaking to the press alongside Mr Zuma in Brussels on Tuesday (28 September), EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the union expects South Africa to support the EU line on nation building in the Sudan, upcoming climate change talks in Cancun and the G20 talks on global financial governance in Seoul.

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  • Mr Zuma (c) greeting the EU leaders in Brussels on Tuesday (Photo:

Mr Van Rompuy said the EU is a huge aid donor in Africa but added that its partners have "duties" and that relations must be "a two-way street."

Recalling a recent debate between EU leaders on what the union's strategic partnerships are for, he said: "We agreed on the need for Europe to promote its interests and values in a spirit of reciprocity and mutual benefit. The EU's strategic partnerships with key players in the world, such as South Africa, provide a useful instrument for pursuing these objectives."

Mr Barroso added: "In Cancun or in Seoul, if we pool our forces together, the EU and South Africa can contribute to making a difference to our people and making sure the world is a more fair and more prosperous place."

Academics Sven Biscop and Richard Whitman in an upcoming book on EU foreign policy, the Routledge Handbook of European Security, have said the EU has only had one real strategic partnership in its history - with the US during the Cold War.

The EU's own list of "strategic partners" includes mostly up-and-coming developing countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa), 20th century great powers (Japan, Russia, and the US) and Canada.

For his part, Mr Zuma noted that the EU-South Africa strategic partnership treaty signed three years ago has seen a multiplication of mid-ranking diplomatic meetings on subjects such as education, social affairs, crime and justice.

He underlined the value of the Lisbon Treaty, saying: "We have met for the first time under the auspices of the Lisbon Treaty. We welcome the fact that with President Van Rompuy we have a permanent partner leading and guiding the EU instead of the pre-Lisbon Treaty six month rotating presidency. We are convinced, Mr President, that under your stewardship and that with President Barroso we will have both continuity and consistency in our relations."

The three men endeavoured to create a friendly atmosphere at the press conference. Mr Barroso and Mr Zuma chuckled along with Mr Van Rompuy's quips abut the football World Cup and how one should never discuss fiscal matters in front of reporters. The EU also gave Mr Zuma a €122 million children's education grant.

The meeting also exposed dividing lines between the two sides, however.

Mr Zuma and Mr Barroso conceded there is a chance they will be unable to conclude talks on an Economic Partnership Agreement with the group of 14 nations of the Southern African Development Community before the end of the year, as planned. "If there is a success, we will claim victory and if there is not a success in December, then we will have some more effort from our officials," the commission chief said. "If there is not [a success], it is not the end of the world," the South African leader added.

Both sides pledged to work together for a new deal on CO2 emissions cuts in Mexico. But Mr Barroso voiced regret that emerging countries at the climate change summit in Denmark did not include the EU in their deal-making with the US. "We in the European Union were to some extent disappointed with the results in Copenhagen," he said.

On the sensitive subjects of Zimbabwe sanctions and South Africa visa facilitation, each side listened to the others' remarks in silence.

South African foreign ministry spokesman Saul Kgomotso had ahead of the EU summit said that Mr Zuma would urge the union to lift the Zimbabwe sanctions. On the day, Mr Van Rompuy read out a statement saying the EU measures are targeted at high officials and arms traders and "do not harm Zimbabweans or impede Zimbabweans' daily lives."

Mr Zuma said he had "proposed a reciprocal visa-waiver agreement for diplomatic and official passport holders." Neither of the EU leaders picked up on the point.

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