Europe and Africa fail to mend fences

Portuguese prime minister Lose Socrates looked exhausted as he told the Africa-EU summit that the meeting marked "a milestone in relations", between the two continents but it would be pushing the truth to say that anything of moment came from the two days of speeches in Lisbon.

From the outset, African leaders made clear that they did not want Zimbabwe on the agenda and they won that battle on paper, but lost the war of words. Both inside the opulent halls of Lisbon’s Expo Centre and outdoors where groups protested both for and against Mr Mugabe, the deepening crisis of rocketing inflation and what critics say is Harare’s poor record on human rights was one a major topic.

As the summit ended, Tomaz Salomao secretary general of the Southern African Development Community criticised the European Union deviating from the topics that had been laid out in advance.

“Zimbabwe was not part of the agreed agenda of the summit,” he told journalists. “Zimbabwe is our problem, we are dealing with it.”

Earlier on Sunday, President Mugabe had hit back at what he called a “gang of four,” naming Germany, Denmark, Holland and Sweden and accusing them of arrogance in their criticism of his leadership and insisting that only the African Union understood the real situation.

“Does the German chancellor and the pro-Gordon (Brown) gang of four of yesterday really believe that they have a better knowledge of Zimbabwe?” he asked.

“It is this arrogance that we are fighting against.”

In her speech on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel attacked Mugabe for “harming the image of the new Africa”.

“We don’t have the right to look away when human rights are trampled on,” Mrs Merkel said,  “Intimidation of those with different opinions and breaches of the independence of the press cannot be justified.”

But the “new understanding” that prime minister Socrates had promised would emerge when we opened the summit fared little better on the agreed topic of trade.

The Europeans are concerned that China is eclipsing their efforts to build business links with Africa. This year Beijing became South Africa’s second-largest trade partner, pushing the US into third position and predictions are that the Chinese will take first place from Germany by the middle of 2008.  

As a bloc, the EU remains Africa’s largest partner, with trade in 2006 standing at more than 215 billion euros.

African leaders gathered in China last year where they faced no criticism on poverty and human rights.

And here again at Lisbon, African presidents flew in on their private planes or with large entourages taking up entire first class cabins of commercial aircraft, while more than 40 per cent of the continent people live on less than US$2 a day.

The EU had hoped the Lisbon meeting would clear the way to set up Economic Partnership Agreements or temporary contracts with some of the world’s poorest countries, but African leaders slammed the deal as offering too little and providing no protection for small traders and farmers.

“It’s clear that Africa rejects the EPAs,” President Abdoulaye Wade of Sanegal said outside the meeting hall. “We are not talking any more about EPAs, we’ve rejected them.”

An exemption on preferential agreements with developing countries, set up by the World Trade Organization, expires at the end of this month  

Only 12 African countries have confirmed interim trade deals with Europe from 1 January 2008 while others insist they will not be pressured by the deadline.

Angela Merkel offered some hope saying, “We are going to look again if Europe can be more flexible,” but added that the Africans would also have to bend their demands before any deal could be finalised.

South African president Thabo Mbeki in his last major speech for next week’s ANC conference at Polokwane, refused to be drawn into the fracas over trade or Zimbabwe.

But he admitted that all had not been well in Africa following withdrawal of the colonial powers.

“Our continent fell victim to military coups and dictatorship, intense civil conflict including genocide, disrespect for human rights, corruption, and, in some instances, the virtual collapse of the machinery of state,” he said.

“We are determined that we should never again return to these dark days, which pushed our peoples deeper and deeper into the dehumanising pit of poverty.”

The Portuguese prime minister continued to put on a brave face as he said farewell to delegates, choosing in most cases a continental embrace instead of shaking hands, and  

Col Muammar Gaddafi of Libya has promised to host another round of talks in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, where public demonstrations will almost certainly be banned.

Botswana’s foreign minister said he was hopeful that something would emerge from Lisbon, in spite of the clash between the two sides.

”Life should not come to a standstill simply because there are problems in Zimbabwe,” he said, but warned that Europe would have to treat his continent as an equal if they wanted to make progress.

” We don’t want any condescending attitude in dealing with Africa,” he said.

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