As part of its international trade development and cooperation activities, the European Union (EU) has strategic partnerships with 10 other countries around the world. South Africa is its only African partner.
These strategic partnerships involve close ties between the senior civil servants in different departments in the EU and partner state, and revolve around an annual meeting between the EU and partner presidents.
Since 2010, our South Africa based team has been enriching the partnership by improving partners’ dialogue on key areas of policy and trade through a ‘dialogue facility’ based in Pretoria. As a result, both partners have changed their emphasis and harmonised various pieces of legislation, and South Africa is exploring EU delivery models in areas such as health and energy.
The project’s technical adviser, Gerry McDonald, explains: “There’s no blueprint for how the EU’s 10 strategic partnerships work, so each is different. The aim of the Dialogue Facility is to fund and share research on different policy areas to make dialogue happen, which can then feed into the Presidential Summit in the form of proposed policy and legislation.
“We currently have a team of three people with €7m of funding and we’re looking at 24 different policy areas where there’s a common interest. Often, we’re simply exploring how to improve the way we trade, but we can also find solutions in areas of disagreement.”
Enriching knowledge, improving cooperation, changing people’s lives
In a typical project, our team takes a brief on a specific issue from either partner and then develops a programme of research and communication that will provoke dialogue among senior civil servants and ministers. This research often involves funding a study by a leading academic, or setting up study tours and conferences.
Subjects for dialogue have included health, education, employment, energy, technology and the conditions for trade itself. The dialogues have often brought significant changes. Gerry McDonald adds: “Mercedes has a big plant here that manufactures the entire world’s right hand drive Mercedes C-Class cars. After a dialogue about why every single car had to be checked by customs officials before it was exported, EU and South Africa laws were changed to allow companies to become trusted exporters, which has reduced red-tape for everyone.”
“Another dialogue looked at South Africa’s policy that everyone in the country should have access to electricity from the grid, which was proving impossibly expensive to deliver. We commissioned research from an EU energy expert and a study tour for senior South African utilities management, who learned about the available alternatives. Now South African policy is changing to allow off-grid energy, which will have a huge impact on people’s lives.”
Enabling social change
The dialogue facility has been far more extensively used than anticipated, and has already received additional funds. It has been at the heart of some important dialogue that may bring major social change. Gerry concludes: “South Africa is the largest user of private health insurance outside the USA, but the difference between the treatment received by the 3 million insured middle income people and the 40 million unable to afford insurance is unacceptable.