Embassy Direct: On 7 February 1992 the Treaty of Maastricht was signed, solidifying the European Union. Representing this entity in South Africa today, we sit down with His Excellency Marcus Cornaro, High Commissioner of the European Union to South Africa. How are you, Ambassador?

H.E. Mr Cornado: It’s a pleasure to be here, and to speak a bit about Europe and South Africa.

As Ambassador of the European Union to South Africa, how would you define your diplomatic tour in the region? Are there moments or events that stand out?

The last 15 months that I’ve been here have been fabulously interesting, challenging, and stimulating. Looking back, I would single out a moment at the end of last year in which we managed to sign and ratify a new Economic Partnership Agreement. We’ll come back to it, but it’s a hallmark agreement that quite dramatically changes the trade and investment relations between the European Union and South Africa. Secondly, from a foreign policy point of view, it was great to host the European Union Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini. She came here in February last year, and had a very good engagement across the board. I would otherwise also single out the very good trips I’ve had throughout the country – visiting different provinces, engaging with the different mayors and provincial governors. Through that, I came to see the humongous diversity of South Africa, the different layers of the different economies, reflecting an interesting but also troubled past. Finally, I have just come back from a month in Cape Town for the Parliamentary proceedings. The diplomatic community is deeply involved in domestic politics as a friend, an observer, and a partner.

How have you and your family adapted to living in South Africa? Have you enjoyed your experience in this country?

Very much so. I’m here with my wife. My three children are university-going, but they also enjoy the diversity and the opportunities of the country so they happily come visit.

My wife is German but we met in Africa, in fact, 25 years ago when we were both in Zimbabwe. At the time Zimbabwe was still a frontline state against racist-South Africa. I was in charge of the Austrian development cooperation to prepare the then-SADC frontline states for the eventuality of tightening sanctions. Luckily all that is history now. In fact, we left Zimbabwe just when Nelson Mandela was released, and I got to see him coming to Zambia, being greeted by jubilant international communities. This has bonded us to the region very strongly, and we have stayed in touch over the last 20, 25 years. It is great to be here and it feels very much like home.

So it’s two 25 year anniversaries, then? Not only for the European Union, but for you and your wife celebrating having met in Africa.

The anniversary of the European Union you correctly quote as the Maastricht Treaty, which was an important step in deepening the EU, but we have just marked 60 years of the European Union Founding Treaty in Rome on 25th March 1957. The European Economic Community, at the time, was founded by six initial countries: Italy, Germany, France, and the Benelux countries (Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg). There will be a big 60 year celebration, but you’re right that the Maastricht Treaty, 25 years ago, deepened and prepared the European Union for its current state of affairs, giving it a formality and the strength to engage with its expansion.

Historians often identify the origin of European integration as stemming from the Roman Empire, so the European Union was present even in ancient times.


South Africa is one of the European Union’s 10 Strategic partners, having established the EU-SA Strategic Partnership in 2006 and a Joint Action Plan in 2007. Could you elaborate on this joint venture, and on what areas of focus is the partnership currently centred on?

There are two important elements. One is to use the partnership to strengthen EU-South African bilateral ties across a range of sectors. I’ve already mentioned the Economic Partnership Agreement as one big element, but we also work together in Science and Technology, where South Africa is one of our strongest international collaborating partners on research; we have made great strides on climate change and environment, working closely with the Ministry of Environment; and we also work closely with the South African International Relations Department dealing with trouble-spots in Africa, where both Europe and South Africa as major partners work to offer solutions. That’s the bilateral angle, but another angle which also characterises this partnership quite prominently is the G20 angle – where South Africa is the first African G20 member, and where the European Union is a driving force on a multilateral level to improve local and global governance on these issues. During my tenure we had two success stories. One was teaming up on the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the other more recent was the CITES Conference, hosted here in South Africa. With a South African-moderated African approach and a European Union-moderated European approach, we managed to get solutions to one of the more controversial issues at the conference, particularly around trophy hunting and how to regulate and allow a sustainable, well-governed commercial use of wildlife.

Could you elaborate on the binding and comprehensive agreement that regulates relations between the EU and South Africa, the Trade, Development and Cooperation Agreement (TDCA)? In what way is this agreement being implemented, and could you mention any success stories that have emerged as a result?

The TDCA has spanned 10 years of trade and investment cooperation. This has allowed the European Union to become South Africa’s most prominent trade partner. If I only quote two figures, the European Union collectively accounts for 75% of foreign direct investment, translating into about 2000 European companies permanently invested in South Africa, with at least 350,000 jobs directly related to these investments. Secondly, we account for at least 20% of South Africa’s export market. This Trade and Development Cooperation Agreement has been modernised by the Economic Partnership Agreement which was signed and ratified in October 2016. So these are early days of implementation, but I can already say that there are a lot of new entry points which will help this trade relation to grow. If I pick up only the advantages for the South African economy towards Europe, there is tremendous new opportunity in minerals; we’ve expanded possibilities in the Agro-industry; and for the first time we are looking closer at fisheries. Overall, there is a big push to help the regional SACU area accumulate value-added export to Europe, which we hope will allow Southern African economies not only to grow in quantitative terms, but I think more importantly to create more sustainable jobs.

The European Union focuses on healthcare and social development in South Africa. In particular relation to the EU’s contributions to the Global Fund to fight HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria and to the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), what is being done between the EU and South Africa to solidify methods and strategies of improving healthcare, not necessarily only in South Africa, but across the continent as well?

This is a hallmark of our cooperation, where we benefit from the enormous expertise found in South Africa together with European Union financing to address African health challenges. At the outset, it was to find a different mode, a different and more genuine answer to local pharmaceutical productions, as we have done jointly at the clinical healthcare trials. South Africa has spearheaded a new format for tuberculosis testing, now a worldwide hallmark, helping many developing countries improve public health. So it is a tremendous success on which we continue to build.

The second challenging issue in which we are partnering together is indeed how to have a national health care system that is more accessible and more affordable to all. This is not easy in a country where you currently have top-notch healthcare for no more than 16% of the population, absorbing half of the public health funds, while the other half caters for the remaining 85% or so of the population. This is a partnership I value a lot. We have a lot of European models that have been tried and tested – part of the program with the Ministry of Health is to help pilot different schemes, and how this could work once properly implemented. It’s not only a health policy issue, it’s also a public finance issue. Once you roll out nationally on a more private partnership-lead health care system, you really have to be sure that on a provincial level and on a municipal level, these decisions can be properly managed. This is where we team up with the National Treasury on different aspects of public financial management.

I’d like to position the European Union as probably South Africa’s best international friend when it comes to the unfinished business of transformation.

Health is such an important area in the development of any country or region, and in Africa especially. The continent has suffered, having been regulated relegated for years, decades and centuries. If the global society gets involved in Africa the way the European Union has, that would be a great milestone for the further development of the continent.

It’s interesting to note that the Centre for the Global Health Fund sits in Cape Town for the entire Africa. Again, a good example where the strategic partnership between the European Union in South Africa helps us to reach out to the rest of the continent.

The unique formula of unifying economies by creating one sole currency, and the political measure of implementing one standard passport for citizens of all member countries, are the most identified results of the EU. Have both delivered the expected results and do you foresee their permanency in the long run?

I’ll start in saying that, for me, the most important result of the European Union remains the peace and stability of the continent, and the prosperity which is just unmatched. It’s, unfortunately, something which is too easily forgotten. But you’re right in saying that both the Euro, which 19 out of the 28 member states have adopted, and the Schengen free travel arrangements are probably the most visible aspect of the convenience for the ordinary citizen to travel through Europe (not just to travel but also to set up shop, to settle down and start families, or start businesses, where they feel best at home and anchored). Admittedly both the Euro and Schengen have been designed as fair-weather programs, so they work very well as long as everything is easy and smooth. But the European Union architecture – on how to take difficult decisions on economic governance, and on the mobility and migration aspects of Schengen – has not been sufficiently made bad-weatherproof. At the moment it is not easy to revise the treaty arrangements in an atmosphere which is not very conducive to getting unanimous support from all corners of the European Union. But I would repeat the overriding advantages, that in the end we have a uniform currency and the freedom of movement, of mobility, from the young to the very old, from the student to the retired person. I’m very confident that whatever the revision of the European Union program is, that this is a positive basis which will sufficiently anchor the population. I’m sure we will get out of this bad weather zone and improve the workings of these two achievements.

As BREXIT continues to make global headlines, would you identify this division as a painful experience or one in which the European Union could reflect on in order to reinvent itself and adapt to the changing economic and political affiliations of continental agencies?

The verdict on that is still out. As we hold this interview, our UK friends have not yet even triggered Article 50, which will start the two-year process of what is a divorce. As with any divorce, it can be painful and nasty, but it can also be very amicable and fair. We hope for a mature process that will lead to both sides being in a good position to continue to collaborate. This is very much part of the UK agenda, and also a large part of the European Union sentiment on that matter. You ask whether it’s a painful experience – it would be if the process turned sour. Then it would indeed not only be regrettable, as I think it is, but it could turn painful. If you ask my take on it now, I would hope that this is a rather sobering shock for both – a shock in the form of a wake-up call that the democratic construct, the narrative with the population, the division of whether national governments are responsible, would find a better re-anchoring. So far, what I do you see, is that the 27 countries that remain have actually strengthened their resolve to make this work.

We thank you for your time and for your insight and wish all the best to the European Union in maintaining its role as a pioneer in global economic and social development.

Thank you so much, it was a pleasure.