Harmony out of reach at EU-Africa summit

Posted in Europe , Africa | 10-Dec-07 | Author: Stephen Castle| Source: International Herald Tribune

Delegates at the EU-Africa summit, December 8, 2007 in Lisbon.

LISBON: Despite committing themselves to a new partnership of equals, European and African leaders wound up a summit meeting Sunday in open conflict over trade deals between the two continents and over human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe used the final day of the meeting to denounce Continental European critics of his government as being ill-informed stooges of the country's formal colonial master, Britain. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain stayed away from the two-day meeting in Lisbon to protest Mugabe's presence.

While Africans closed ranks around Mugabe, refusing to criticize a government that is accused of persistent human rights abuses and of impoverishing its citizens, a more serious division emerged over trade.

The European Union is negotiating a series of Economic Partnership Agreements, designed to replace existing deals with African countries, and wants to reach an agreement on them by the end of the year.

The EU says that if they fail to do so, African countries could lose tariff-free access to European markets under rules laid down by the World Trade Organization.

"It's clear that Africa rejects the EPAs," President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal said at a news conference, claiming the support of the president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. "We are not talking any more about EPAs, we've rejected them."

Rifts over the two issues dominated the first meeting between EU and African leaders in seven years, souring the atmosphere at a gathering designed to help Europeans retain their traditional influence in Africa.

That has been challenged by the rise of China, which has pursued an aggressive strategy of African investment, offering loans and contracts that do not include conditions relating to transparency and good governance.

The Lisbon meeting ended with an ambitious action plan, covering a range of issues from immigration to climate change, and a promise to meet again in 2010, possibly in Libya.

The verdict on the meeting at which 80 countries were represented was predictably mixed. The host, Prime Minister José Sócrates of Portugal, said it would "go down in history because of its spirit of mutual equality between states."

The campaigning groups Save the Children and Human Rights Watch, however, issued separate statements decrying the lack of concrete achievements.

The dispute over trade will have to be confronted by European foreign ministers at a meeting Monday, and the EU itself appears split over the EPAs.

African countries with the lowest incomes are not affected because they are protected under WTO rules. But slightly richer countries - most notably Namibia, which has refused to initial a deal - could be hit severely if tariffs were introduced Jan. 1.

The trade deals the countries have been asked to sign cover goods only. But a clause in the agreements would oblige African countries to start negotiations on the eventual opening up their domestic markets in areas including services - something many African nations are reluctant to contemplate.

Britain is pressing for an EU pledge not to not impose tariffs on African countries should they refuse to sign the agreements by Dec. 31, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said Saturday that Europe should not "bleed dry" poor countries.

"I don't believe all African countries are in a position to accept unbridled liberalism," Sarkozy said.

On Sunday, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, promised that some form of negotiation could continue into next year, but his officials said it was far from clear that the deadline set for the end of this year would be lifted.

"Apart from the poorest countries, those that have decided not to sign EPAs, for whatever reasons, will find themselves under a regime where they will have to pay tariffs on certain exports which they would not have had to pay had they initialed an EPA," said Peter Power, the commission's spokesman for trade.

Aid agencies are pressing for clear concessions.

"This summit could be a wake-up call for European leaders if they realize that there are big problems with these deals," said Amy Barry, trade spokesperson of Oxfam. "They should use the meeting on Monday to raise the sword from above the heads of their negotiating partners."

Mugabe's presence, meanwhile, provided a reminder of how the legacy of colonialism complicated the relationship between the two continents, as African leaders rejected criticism from Europeans of human rights in Zimbabwe.

On Saturday, Mbeki, who is leading a negotiating team from the South African Development Community, or SADC, comprised of 14 countries in the region, appealed to European officials to allow Africans to solve their own problems.

Earlier, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany issued a strong denunciation of the situation in Zimbabwe that was supported by the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

Mugabe responded to the statement Sunday, referring to his critics as "Gordon's gang of four," in reference to the British prime minister.

"Does the German chancellor and the other pro-Gordon Brown people really believe they know better than SADC and the African Union? We have to fight this arrogance," he was quoted as saying by European diplomats present in the meeting.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who spoke after Mugabe, pointed out that Merkel had reflected an agreed position of the EU, while Jan-Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, told reporters he was proud to be a member of the "gang of four."

Despite the attention that his attendance attracted, Mugabe kept a relatively low profile in Lisbon, refusing to make any statements to the media.

On Saturday evening, he arrived so late for a formal dinner that the Portuguese media reported that he had missed it.

On Sunday, Mugabe's security guards did their best to prevent television cameras from showing him leaving his hotel, though on arrival at the meeting's venue Mugabe raised a clenched fist to the cameras as a signal of defiance when asked by a reporter what his message was to Europe.

Though at one point he was embraced by the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir - himself the object of criticism over the crisis in Darfur - Mugabe's contact with other leaders appeared limited to allies like Wade.

"He was rather isolated," said one European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, who said European leaders avoided him completely.