Monday, October 30, 2017

Zimbabwe, EU Must Move Forward
OCTOBER 29, 2017
Nomsa Nkala
Zimbabwe Sunday Mail

On August 3, 2017 Zimpapers Television Network engaged Head of the European Union Mission to Zimbabwe Ambassador Philippe Van Damme on the EU’s interest in African elections, Zimbabwe’s relations with the bloc and whether the definition of democracy in Europe is the same in Africa. The following is the first instalment of Ambassador Van Damme’s conversation with Zimpapers Head of Television Nomsa Nkala.

Q: Your assignment in Zimbabwe began in 2014, what were your thoughts regarding the country then?

A: My mandate started with formal engagements with the Government of Zimbabwe, with the lifting of appropriate measures on development co-operation, which opened new values of engaging on policy dialogue with Government. So, that was a very exciting moment and time to come over.

My mandate finishes after the elections in 2018, so that is a perfect frame for my presence here. l very much enjoy it.

Q: And your expectations?

A: My expectations, indeed, that we can progress in our engagements. That means we can progress in a number of policy reforms, particularly the political field so that we further our relations. That’s the ultimate goal of a relationship.

Q: Are you making progress in that area?

A: Maybe not as quickly as we would have liked. That’s quite obvious. But on the other hand, we have a couple of development programmes that are running in the country. That gives us a lot of satisfaction because they directly benefit the population of this country. Notably in rural areas, we have a lot of food security resilience-building programmes where we help smallholders get access to markets and build up a viable livelihood.

We continue the contribution to the health sector through Unicef-managed health development funds and try at institutional levels to make progress. We are working on justice issues, human rights, constitutional alignment and finance management. They are all complicated and challenging.

We would have liked to progress more rapidly, and now we have the Lima Agenda that the Government prepared and presented at four meetings of the IMF and World Bank in October 2015, which created a little bit of momentum. Unfortunately, that momentum got a little bit lost, so we try to keep it alive and urge the Government to continue on that track because we honestly believe that is the only way forward.

Q: What, in your view, is stalling progress?

A: That is up to the Government to make that assessment. We try to find indicators that are willing to go to the part of those reforms. l guess there are all kinds of reasons that explain the slowdown and that process, and l guess, of course, pre-electoral moods are never — anywhere in the world — favourable for structural reforms.

But we still try, notably in the political field; it is extremely important to conduct elections in a free and transparent way so that we can continue building on that positive engagement after the elections.

Q: Can you share with us your thoughts on President Mugabe. What was your first impression of the man in 2014?

A: Clearly President Mugabe is a charismatic person, and l have to say he has a sense of humour and I like people who have a sense of humour. We had a very interesting chat. I will never forget that historical encounter to connect with a person of the liberation movement period in Africa. But l can’t reveal what we discussed.

Q: Do you believe he is a credible leader?

A: l don’t have to comment. I always say to people I am not a journalist; I am not a columnist. So, I am not commenting on the quality of leaders or quality of political personnel from wherever and l am not commenting on domestic policies.

Q: You came into the country soon after a general election which was won by President Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and immediately after that election, the United States and some countries in the EU challenged the credibility of that poll. What particular mandate were you given by the EU in light of its position on that election and the Zimbabwe Government?

A: First of all, America is not part of the EU and the EU has a common position which it explained at that time.

There has been an observation mission of Sadc and the African Union, and both of them underlined the peaceful conduct of those elections, but both of them also highlighted some anomalies and problems and we took stock of that.

So, we said let’s move forward, but there are things to be done and part of the political agenda is for the recommendations of these observer missions have to be implemented.

Q: The EU, in particular, said, “We are concerned about the alleged irregularities and reports of incomplete participation as well as identified weaknesses in the electoral process and lack of transparency.” Sadc and AU observers determined that the election result indicated the will of Zimbabweans. So, you didn’t agree with those two observer missions?

A: This is not entirely incompatible. You can, indeed, highlight some problems and irregularities and still think that, overally, the results reflected — broadly speaking — the opinion of the people. So, this is not necessarily incompatible. But as I said when I arrived here and explained to the President during our discussions when I presented my credentials, I am not here as a historian making assessments of the past.

I am here to look forward and see how we can improve our relations and the future of the people of Zimbabwe.

Q: So, essentially, the EU recognises President Mugabe as the duly elected leader of this country?

A: I presented my letters of credentials to the President of this country, so we continue, we engage and we discuss.

Q: The Zimbabwe Government rejected the EU’s proposal to observe the last election on the basis that accepting such a mission equalled accepting foreign interference in the county’s electoral process. Do you feel Government’s position was justified?

A: The EU observes elections throughout the world, and that can be a contributing factor to confidence-building which is something very often included in this country, valuable assets. So, EU observer missions are not there to intervene because they have a very specific mandate which is to observe and not to intervene.

The presence of observers can have an appeasing impact on elections.

My previous posting was in Guinea-Conakry, and l was present throughout two elections. And each time the electoral observers were assessed by all sides, it was extremely useful to enhance the credibility and contribute to overall appeasement.

So, this is not about interference, but it’s about the international community – whether Sadc, AU or EU or other international observer missions — to contribute to the consolidation of democracy.

Q: African countries are never invited to observe elections in Europe. Why is that?

A: If African countries would request to observe the elections, I don’t think there would be any objections. There have been elections observed by external observer missions even in Europe, within the EU and that’s not an exception. We don’t have any objections to that. There might not be a necessity for that because the elections don’t create tensions and don’t require these type of confidence-building measures, but (Africans) are always welcome. Just like the America elections, they have external service participating in their elections. There is no ideological problem here.

Q: It is not a capacity issue, is it?

A: I don’t think we have capacity problems to organise elections in Europe. I am Belgian, it’s a complicated country with three communities and three regions with linguistic differences and thoughts, but we managed to organise our elections.

Q: Have any African groupings ever observed elections in Europe?

A: Not to my knowledge.

Q: Earlier this year, the government of Rwanda said it was not bothered by the EU’s non-involvement in its elections because Africans are really not invited to observe or monitor elections in Europe. What do you make of that statement? Doesn’t it reflect a disconnect between the two continents?

A: I don’t know if there is a disconnect. l don’t have to comment (on) President Kagame’s statements on that. But what l see is that between the EU and Africa, it has an increasingly narrow partnership which culminates in regular EU-AU Summits.

The next Summit will be organised in Abidjan in November this year, and you have noticed in the run-up to this Summit, which will concentrate around the fundamental theme of the role of youths in society, that there is a huge campaign to try to listen to the voice of the youths not only in Africa, but Europe as well.

A pre-Summit (event) will have youths come together and identify key concerns of the youths, and that will then be brought up at the Abidjan Summit. That relationship between EU and Africa – focusing on peace and security, migration and integration – is growing stronger.

l don’t see any problem in that.

Q: But do you agree that there is this general sentiment in Africa?

A: I don’t know if there is a general sentiment. Clearly, some people in Africa have this sentiment, but l am not sure if it is a general sentiment. I have been in different countries in Africa, and l did not encounter (on) a consistent basis hostility towards partnership with Europe.

And when l am travelling in Zimbabwe, l encounter a lot people with a lot of sympathy for what we are doing and the way we are doing it; for the partnership which is a real relationship for the equals and not unequal. It is one of the key aspects of our development co-operation not in my office, but jointly with the Government of Zimbabwe.

We have a trade relationship which is based on equality between the two partners.

We have a negotiated Economic Partnership Agreement which gave Zimbabwe an entire quota and tariff-free access to EU markets while we don’t have the same access to the Zimbabwean market. So, the inequality is the other way round. I don’t see any substantive problem in that.

Q: But still there are some in Africa who feel that the West is always attempting to prescribe and define democracy for Africa.

A: Opinions are divergent. From all perspectives, there are fundamental values that are universal; that are principles of democracy, principles of the rule of law and principles of human rights.

How democracy is being translated in institutions around the world can be done in different ways. And even in Europe, we have constitutional monarchs, presidential regimes and parliamentary regimes. So, each country finds its own way. Democracy is never a perfect finalised product, but the core principles of democracy are fundamental and universal.

Q: Is it the position of the EU; that democracy differs from country to country?

A: No, l am not saying democracy differs from country to country, but the principles of that democracy are universal. The ways you translate this democracy institutionally may have varieties depending on the history of different countries, but the fundamentals are similar.

Q: That is the approach the EU takes regarding every country it deals with?

A: Yes.

Q: Zimbabwe is holding another election in 2018. Is the EU going to propose to send a team of observers?

A: The time has not come yet to discuss that with the Government.

Q: Are you thinking of doing that?

A: The issue of election observer missions, normally, is discussed roughly six months before the deadlines of the elections because we need to mobilise long-term observer missions.

So, we still have time to discuss. Yes, we will, of course, raise issue in due time because we, indeed, think that we contribute value to the electoral process.

Q: So, you are likely to propose to send an observer mission?

A: Everything in due time, but that is a possibility which is on the table.

Q: Why are you not sending an observer mission to Rwanda?

A: Because President Kagame did not allow us to have an election observer mission in Rwanda.

Q: Did you propose to send a mission there?

A: Like in most countries, we bring that offer on the table.

Ambassador, you touched, earlier, on work that the EU is doing in Zimbabwe under the National Indicative Programme. Any visible results so far?
A: I am trying to get out of Harare on a regular bases to visit our projects. And what I am seeing in the countryside are, indeed, extremely successful projects. But sometimes there are challenges. The most successful programmes are those which focus, in rural areas, on creating viable long-term livelihoods for the people in the country and to achieve that, you have to bring the smallholders to the markets.

That requires a lot of organisational skills because it means that you have to bring people in groupings and organise production and then organise access to the market. That is what we call public-private community partnerships.

The communities link up with the private sector to get expertise from commercial sectors and to access markets. Of course, we have the support of the extension services of Government and so forth.

We have visited a couple of highly-successful projects in that regard in the horticultural sector and staple crops. So, yes, where there is a willingness among the different stakeholders to work together and where the legal environment allows, this country can, indeed, progress.

The problem, of course, is we are only working with smallholders on communal lands; the legal framework is not settled. There are still a lot of problems in the legal framework which hamper investment.

Q: Are those areas, in your view, being addressed at all by the Zimbabwe Government?

A: We engage with the Government on these economic reforms, which are a link to land ownership or at least security of tenure, rule of law and the macro-economic environment, including indigenisation and so forth.

So, we are engaging. Progress is slow, which means also that it is difficult to engage with multilateral agencies because as you know, the Government has debt arrears with multilateral agencies.

These should be cleared so that the Government can access new funding, but that new funding is linked to structural reforms which guarantee that whatever new funding comes in will be used in the most productive way possible and will lead to sustainable debt policy for the Government so that we don’t fall back into the trap of a vicious debt cycle.

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