A New Chapter in EU-Yemen Relations? [Archives:2000/19/Interview]

May 8 2000

The European Union has always been a generous donor to Yemen’s development, and during the latest visit of the EU delegation to Sanaa, this fact has been confirmed once again.
The EU. 25 Representatives of European Union Member States, the European Union Council, the European Commission and for the first time the European Investment Bank, had a meeting with the Yemeni government during the past 4 days on the occasion of the annual meeting of the EC-Yemen Joint Cooperation Committee.
On Wednesday, the EU has agreed to provide Yemen with a $60 million grant to be used for a range of projects this year. The main purpose of this grant is to support civil aviation, coastal fishing monitoring and a water and sewerage project in the southern port city of Aden. There have also been other agreements signed for supporting Yemen’s development process as well.

Yemen Times Chief Editor Walid Al-saqqaf seized the opportunity to file this interview with Mr. Peter ZANGL, head of the visiting Delegation and European Commission Director for External Relations with the Middle East and South Mediterranean.

Q: Mr. ZANGL , could you please tell us about the purpose of your visit?
A: Since the entry into force of the first cooperation agreement between the European Community and the Republic of Yemen in 1984, the representatives of the signatories normally meet once a year to review the status of the implementation of the accord, define the general scope of future cooperation, agree on priorities and discuss beyond this agenda other matters relevant to EC-Yemen relations. The Yemeni Government and the Commission alternate the hosting of these Joint Cooperation Committee Meetings (JCCM) and I am happy to say that on the occasion of this 9th JCCM we are able to enjoy once again the exceptional hospitality extended to us by our counterparts here in Sanaa and elsewhere in the country.

Q: What are the topics and issues you concentrated on?
A: Strengthening of relations, in all fields of co-operation! Under this topic, we particularly addressed democracy and Human Rights and certain important issues for the overall development of Yemen’s economy, including the central role of private sector development and investment. In addition, water, rural development, fisheries and food security were discussed in depth. We also stressed the overall importance of gender as a crosscutting issue for all sectors of co-operation.

Q: Dialogue with Civil Society seems to feature high on the agenda of your cooperation program. Why is this a priority for you?
A: Yemen has embarked on a comprehensive economic and administrative reform process. This entails the implementation of measures geared towards the creation of a slimmer and more efficient administration, a reduction of the involvement of the state in non-governmental activities, the provision of a liberal and thus competitive and investor-friendly environment, the reduction of government debt etc. Most of these measures produce, in the short run, and unavoidable hardship for a sizeable segment of the Yemeni population. They are therefore only likely to succeed, if the public understands the need for these reforms and is convinced that they will ultimately contribute to a higher level of welfare for the Yemeni people at large. The cushioning of the negative impact of the reform program ad interim is of equal importance, if it is not to fail.

We are therefore trying to ensure with the government that relevant Commission assisted interventions are based on a broad consensus and involve in-depth consultations with the beneficiaries. This process is sometimes cumbersome and leads to delays in project formulation and implementation. However, we believe that this is a price worth paying.

Our sizeable support of NGO based activities in Yemen, which currently accounts for 12 % of total financial commitments, allows us also to feel the pulse the of civic society. We attempt to apply the lessons learnt in these projects to the design of our core assistance program.

Finally, I would like to mention that we have agreed with the government to continue to allocate approximately 50 % of our assistance to social protection programs and projects including food security.

Q: You mentioned earlier that the main factor of success for development is political will. Could you explain that a little further?
A: We are here to support the implementation of policies which the government has decided upon on its own on condition that they are consistent with our principal convictions and that government is determined to see them through. My belief is that these conditions are being met. This was also the conclusion of the meetings held in Brussels earlier in the year between H.E. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Commission President Prodi and Commissioner Patten.

Q: What are your impressions in regard to the achievements of the country compared to those of last year?
A: Our last JCCM was held in December 1998 and Yemen has since gone through a difficult period due to the temporary deterioration of oil prices. Keeping the reform program on track without having the means of sustaining adequate public expenditure levels put the government in a very precarious situation. However, this difficult period has been mastered with remarkable fiscal discipline and patience on the part of the people. Exchange rate stability, a CPI now well below 10%, an increase in foreign reserves equivalent to 6 months of imports and the first budget surplus in recent history are the rewards of these endeavors. Yemen has moreover successfully held its first direct presidential elections, in September 1999 and ratified the law on local elections thereby fostering its still very young democracy. Steady progress is also being made in the area of human rights. Gender equality is more forcefully promoted and other critical issues such as the unsustainable population growth addressed with determination.

There are obviously areas in which we would welcome more rapid progress. The promotion of a judiciary, which offers reliable legal recourse, is one such area.

Q: Your visit coincides with the 10th anniversary of Yemeni Unity. How do you evaluate the fruits of unity in regard to Yemen’s relations with Europe and the aid provided to it ?
A: The re-unification of Yemen and the choice by the unified state for a democratic constitution are undoubtedly the major accomplishments in Yemen’s recent history. As a German I all the more appreciate the opportunities as well as challenges brought about by these developments. The current advanced cooperation agreement on which EC-Yemen relations are based would not have been possible without them.

Q: Your visit also coincides with freedom of the press day on May 3rd. What is your impression of the level of the freedom of the press in Yemen?
A: I would not wish to comment on this issue in general simply because I have been here on too short a visit. Obviously I am aware that there have been a number of incidents where newspapers have been temporarily prevented from publishing and where journalists had to justify the contents of their articles before civil courts. Clearly, the Commission is a staunch supporter of the freedom of the press and in its dialogue with the government it actively promotes independent and pluralistic media. It is at the same time clear that the development of tolerance towards a free press needs as much time as the development of a truly democratic society and rule. Don’t forget that this a process, which took us Europeans in most cases more than one century.

We sponsored a seminar on this subject in Sanaa in 1996 with the participation of journalists from all Arab states and if I recall correctly, Yemen was ranked amongst those countries in the region in which the media in general were judged to enjoy the comparatively highest level of independence. Looking at some of the recent issues of the YEMEN TIMES, which also contain reviews of the headlines of Yemen’s principal Arab Language newspapers, it would appear that this evaluation of the situation was correct. The press here seems to provide constructive criticism and function as a catalyst for forward thinking. We are committed to continue assisting in the further development of this process.

Q: What is the most successful achievement so far in your visit and what do you expect to be approved as future cooperation projects?
A: The spontaneous enthusiasm, friendliness and warmth shown by the Yemeni people towards our entire delegation during our field visits and elsewhere was a very stimulating and rewarding experience. My meetings with H.E. The President of the Republic, H.E. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and my direct counterpart, Minister Ahmed Sofan were extremely constructive and characterized by a high level of understanding of each other’s positions and consensus on most matters of mutual concern. I appreciate in particular the openness with which the discussions were held and which again is reflective of the mutual trust and respect amongst the parties concerned.

As regards future cooperation, the principal orientation of our above outlined assistance strategy remains unaltered. For the next two years development cooperation will focus on Agriculture and Fisheries including Food Security, Health, Administrative and Structural Reforms, Water Conservation, Supply and Sanitation, Vocational Training, Tourism as well as Private Sector and Trade Promotion. Humanitarian assistance, activities in support of human rights and democracy and gender equality will complement this core program.

The inclusion of Yemen in the mandate of the European Investment Bank for the period 2000-2007 opens additional avenues for capital investment based cooperation. The deregulation in Yemen of civil aviation, the utilities and other sectors of the economy provide for interesting perspectives in this regard.