'Namibia Needs Policy Space, Special Treatment' [interview] (allAfrica.com)

The outgoing Head of the European Union Delegation to Namibia, Ambassador Raul Fuentes Milani, yesterday sat down for a breakfast meeting with a few local journalists. New Era’s Senior Business and Economics reporter, Edgar Brandt, joined Milani for his last official engagement before heading back to the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Milani’s successor is scheduled to arrive in Namibia by the second week of September but until then the EU Delegation will be led by an intern Charge d’Affaires.

What were the main aspects the EU and Namibia focused on during your tenure as the Head of the EU Delegation?

During the last four and a half years we have been working on mainly three ideas: The first is trying to become a political partner of the Namibian authorities. A political partner is one where you can appeal when you have a problem and where you can try to agree on different positions. I don’t think the EU should only be considered a development partner. What we want to be is a general political partner of Namibians. For instance, we can help Namibians during electoral periods. During the last elections we had an electoral observation mission and we had an opportunity to join the SADC observer and other observer missions to go around the country to verify that elections were free and fair. We would also like to, for instance, work alongside Namibia regarding the Climate Change Conference that will take place in Paris in December. In this case both the EU and Namibia have very advanced positions and have advanced legislation, and both are heavily engaged in the protection of the environment, much more than some other countries, which have different positions. On this issue we can reach out to Namibia to find common ground.

Another example is the General Assembly of the United Nations that will take place in September, when a number of international political issues will be raised. Maybe we can sit together with Namibia to find common ground. Another example is the discussion on what is called the ‘post 20-20’ development challenges. Here again we can sit with Namibia to see what kind of challenges we can address.

We try to create confidence with Namibian authorities and want them to understand that we really appreciate what they are doing. They have been able to build a country that is democratically stable with sound management of the economy, with challenges of course.

Overall, we want to see where we can work together. There are other areas where we cannot work together because we have different views, but that does not mean we need to be suspicious of each other. We identify where our interests converge and there we work together, and where our interests are different we are completely respectful of the Namibian position.

Secondly, we finalised negotiations on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which is a very important agreement. We formerly had a unilateral deal that offered Namibia duty free and quota free access to the EU. However, this was not a system we could legally maintain during that time as there are other countries that are in the same position as Namibia who would go to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and say, ‘Why don’t we have duty free, quota free too’, but we cannot offer that to everybody. So yes, we made this offer to Namibia, taking into account a number of considerations. We therefore negotiated a difficult EPA and we arrived at a result which President Geingob himself considers a win-win agreement. What we have to do now is to finalise the agreement, to sign it and to draft an implementation plan and enforce it.

The third element of my tenure in Namibia was development cooperation. The EU is really the most constant development partner for Namibia and together with member states account for up to 60 to 70 percent of development assistance, and we are here to stay even as other partners are phasing out. We considered the stage of Namibian development and said, ‘Well, they are an upper-middle income country. Does it make sense to still have development assistance?’ And we said yes, it does make sense because Namibia is still affected by historical legacies that create huge income disparity and pockets of poverty and so on, and there is still work to be done. So we decided to maintain our engagement in the country. Then, what we did was first to negotiate a joint approach with other EU member states present in Namibia, so that we would divide the labour not to overlap and we agreed with the National Planning Commission (NPC) on the priorities from 2015 to 2020.

Is it true that EU development assistance for Namibia has decreased?

It is true that the envelope has been reduced from previous years. We would have liked to offer as much money as possible and I think every single euro or dollar would have been well spent. However, this is what we could do and I think the envelope is important enough to carry out a significant action in four areas, namely: support to early childhood development and pre-primary education; support to vocational education and training; support to the livestock value chain specifically for farmers in the north; as well as support to civil society.

The envelope, which is 68 million euros, is actually bigger than that. What is very important is that there are Namibian programmes in place and when there is a good project there is always a way to finance it. What we did is to front-load the use of the 68 million euros and if possible we would have committed the full amount by the middle of the term and then we can reconsider and perhaps conduct a mid-term review, and then top up the envelope. The idea is that the amount of money is not as important as is the engagement or the decision to engage in development cooperation.

The last financing period was 103 million euros, which was topped with 20 million more when I arrived. But this is not all the money because in parallel to that we have some budget lines managed for specific projects. However, the 68 million euros is the programmable aid which is earmarked for Namibia and we need to build programmes to use that money.

Is there a specific timeframe for the signing of the EPA?

While there is no specific timeframe for the signing of the EPA, the process now involves legal scrubbing, which means that we have to ensure that the agreement text on the SADC side and our side is exactly the same. This process normally takes about a year and it’s almost finalized. After this we need to set a time for the signature, which we hope will take place by the end of this year. After the signature we will provisionally apply the agreement although the ratification will take place later as it involves the parliaments of all EU member states. Still, the agreement will be applied provisionally so that from that moment Namibia will receive duty free and quota free treatment on the basis of the agreement. The signature usually takes about a year, to a year and a half, from the end of the negotiations and then the ratification may take longer because 28 parliaments involved in the process are many.

How would you describe the EPA negotiation process?

The negotiation process was a learning curve on both sides, I think. On the Namibian side they took some time to understand that we need a bilateral agreement. It took some time to really understand that we cannot carry on with unilateral treatment forever and that was a really serious consideration for us. After some time they rallied with us on this point.

On our side, we had to understand Namibian specificities. What Namibia needs is policy space to develop, to use tools for development and to get duty free and quota free access for the few items that Namibia exports to the EU. This policy space was necessary to agree on trade deals with other countries. We do not seek exclusivity, and understand that if Namibia wants to sell beef to China we are fully supportive of that.

Namibia also needs policy space to protect a number of sensitive sectors like milk and poultry and they need to implement the safeguards, like infant industry protection, quickly. Namibia also needs to apply safeguards in case they receive disproportionate amounts of imports of certain products and they need to apply the safeguards quickly because the economy is small and therefore fragile. Namibia required something handy, flexible and easy to use and at the end of the day it won’t compromise our trade policy if Namibia comes to the conclusion that we are overloading their market with certain products. We needed to understand that Namibia needs special treatment and that we need to respect Namibian concerns.

At the beginning we thought we were very generous as we were offering duty free, quota free access across the board. What else would you want because nobody else was offering that? However, one day somebody came to me and said, ‘Listen you are offering duty free, quota free access in about 400 lines of trade. This is very generous but we are not going to use all of that. It’s not what we need. We only need duty free, quota free access for products we usually offer to you, which is beef, fish, grapes and so on, but then what we need is policy space?’ So it was a learning exercise.

Will you be coming back to Namibia at all?

Of course I will be coming back. I have a special relationship with Namibia. I have travelled the country extensively. You know that I am very passionate about Namibia, its people and its nature. I have travelled alone and with family and friends and not just for official trips. I have been a very keen mountain bike cyclist, which has taken me to all corners of the country, from the Fish River Canyon to Tsumeb and to Swakopmund. I have a lot of scars that I will take with me with pride. I have even decided to leave my Landrover here to use when I return for visits and holidays.