Booze rocks EU-SA marriage.

Author:Nevin, Tom

Booze can be a terrible thing. It can wreck marriages and it threatened to sabotage the signing of the free trade deal between South Africa and the European Union. And the threat may not have yet passed.

The uneasy marriage of commercial convenience between South Africa and the EU finally took place in Pretoria on 12 October after a four-year troublesome engagement, during which time alcohol was always a disruptive factor. Typically, it overshadowed more important and mutually beneficial issues and on more than one occasion threatened to bring down the relationship entirely.

Last month, however, a tense pre-nuptial weekend was ended with the signing of the long-awaited Trade, Development and Cooperation Accord which opened the way for the implementation of improved trade concessions for South Africa's exporters to the EU.

An ever-present spectre throughout the negotiations was South Africa's export of its port and sherry products into Europe. Portugal protested that SA could not sell its fortified wines under the name of 'port' because such alcoholic beverages must originate from the Portuguese region of Oporto. Spain had a similar objection with South African 'sherry'.

When the trade deal began to unravel a week before the signing, SA President Thabo Mbeki was not amused and lashed our at some EU countries, accusing them "with absolutely no sense of shame" of trying to block the signing.

Said an infuriated Mbeki, "Stripped of all pretence, what has raised the question whether the agreement can be signed or not is the reality that many countries of the north have lost all sense of the noble idea of human solidarity. What seems to predominate is the question, in its narrowest and most naked meaning, 'what's in it for me?' And all this with absolutely no apology and no sense of shame."

After the signing, Mbeki cooled off, saying his earlier assessment was wrong, but that the unease felt by SA when the signing seemed to be in jeopardy was understandable.

But after all was said and signed, it was the demon drink that was at the heart of the problem, for all the smiles and handshakes (and, yes, a champagne toast) that attended the sealed deal.

Anger, suspicion and mistrust

South Africa agreed in a compromise arrangement to phase out, after 12 years, the use of the terms port and sherry on its bottles of fortified wines. But SA, to the anger, suspicion and mistrust of Spain and Portugal, clings to the hope that the pact will fall away in a...

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