The EU ambassador to Rwanda Nicola Bellomo spoke to Ivan R. Mugisha on the frosty ties between members of the EAC, and the state of the Economic Partnership Agreement.
Over a decade has passed since negotiations between the EU and EAC began to establish the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). Without consensus now, are the EPAs dead?
No way. Discussions are still ongoing. We took almost ten years to discuss the EPAs, so we believe that everything in the deal is well known to all parties involved. But some countries oppose it yet it is a region-to-region agreement. Rwanda and Kenya indicated they are ready to move forward but the rest are still stalling. We hope that in the near future, we may have good developments.
What does that mean?
We understand that there are some dynamics that are changing and we hope that this will materialise into concrete decisions. I feel that we are approaching a moment to make a final decision on the way forward, or even to explore alternative agreements.
Some countries in the EAC have proposed the variable geometry, but the EU has always said it is not up to us to propose it. If EAC countries realise they cannot go forward with the agreement, then tell us about their plan B. I think we are reaching that moment when we will know whether to go with or without the EPAs.
Is there a chance that the EU can renegotiate its part of the deal to include more protection to EAC industries, like what some member countries such as Tanzania are asking for?
No. The negotiation is done and to be honest, it has been proved that this agreement can add a lot to the economy of the EAC and individual countries, and this can also be considered one pillar of future continent-to-continent free trade agreement.
Doesn’t the UK’s exit from the EU make the EPA somewhat less appealing to the EAC? How will the EU maintain strong partnership in EAC after Brexit?
First, we regret but we respect the decision of the people of UK to leave the EU. It will be painful for everybody of course but I can assure you that there will still be a strong impact of the EU, particularly in Africa even without the UK.
The current EU leadership considers Africa as a top priority and this agenda will not suffer because of Brexit. The EU will suffer in terms of its internal market, free movement, economy but not our partnerships with the rest of the world.
The EU is a big partner of regional integration in the EAC. Now what do you think of the current fallout between Rwanda and its neighbours Uganda and Burundi?
We welcome the efforts and the spirit behind the dialogue between Uganda and Rwanda. Of course it is disappointing not to see concrete deliverables but it is good to see that they refer to cordial discussions. We also read reports from these discussions but unfortunately, the conditions are not yet changing. The EU can only encourage dialogue because there is no other alternative.
What lessons can Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi draw from the EU integration?
The EU is a result of integration in the aftermath of the Second World War. This is central in showing how to turn a challenge into an opportunity. Integration is the only way forward to develop intra-African trade and tourism. Unfortunately, statistics show that intra-African trade is still low.
Too many people are suffering because of tensions between neighbours, especially those living in border areas.
Largely, the economies of these countries suffer from this as they collapse the very positive narrative about Rwanda when it has differences with its neighbours Uganda and Burundi. But we also appreciate the positive developments between Rwanda and the DRC.
What is the main focus of your work in Rwanda as the EU ambassador?
Rwanda is increasingly on the radar of the European Union, so we are not only trying to consolidate the partnership but to increase the its quality and quantity.
It is solid at the highest level of leadership of both the EU and Rwanda and is based on mutual respect. I acknowledge the ambitions and focus on the development strategy of this country. We want to align our ambitions to the development priorities of Rwanda. This is an ongoing process and I think that Rwanda is at a crossroads as it is approaching important challenges, but we appreciate the strong vision behind its objectives.
What do you see are the main obstacles to Rwanda’s vision?
The main challenge is how to integrate Rwanda into the regional and continental economy, which is why the EU is the biggest supporter of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
We support the AU and believe that Rwanda, in that context, can play a role in developing its infrastructure, the new airport, then also boost tourism and the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions sector. There is a need to work on skills development. Both the education and vocational training sectors need to be aligned with these ambitions going forward.
Rwanda has invested heavily in tourism and has signed promotional deals with rich European football clubs, Arsenal and PSG. Do you think these are good deals for a country still relying on foreign aid?
In order to promote tourism, you need to invest in marketing the country, especially if you want to change the perception of the people in the West. It is no secret that in many countries in Europe, Rwanda’s perception—for historical reasons—has not always been positive
There is a need to combine the efforts of institutions, the private sector, and the civil society to generate a different perception of Rwanda. We shall launch a programme with Rwanda Polytechnic this year in order to upgrade the capacity of people working in the tourism industry.
EU has been one of Rwanda’s most critical partners on human rights, the treatment of journalists and opposition politicians. Do you see this stance changing in pursuance for stronger business and investment ties?
Not at all; this is a complex issue. First of all our relationship is based on mutual respect. We appreciate the progress and where Rwanda is coming from. We also see a gradual opening of political and civil society space in the country.