Bob packs his bags for Lisbon

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said he will attend a European Union (EU)-Africa summit in December in Lisbon, triggering a boycott of the meeting by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

“Yes, I’m going,” Mugabe was quoted on Tuesday as telling Portugal’s Lusa news agency in Mozambique.

Shortly after, a spokesperson for Brown in London said the British leader “won’t be going. Definitely”.

The December 8 to 9 summit in Lisbon will be the first between the two continents in seven years. Previous efforts to meet have foundered over whether Mugabe, whom the West accuses of widespread human rights violations but who some in Africa sees as an independence hero, should be invited.

Pressed by rising competition from China in Africa, the EU is determined that this year’s summit should take place, in part to solidify its position as Africa’s largest trading partner.

In Brussels, an EU source said Portugal, which holds the 27-nation bloc’s rotating presidency, would formally notify member states this week that it would waive an EU visa ban on Mugabe and his senior aides to enable the Zimbabwe delegation to attend the summit.

Under a deal agreed in the EU, no member state was expected to object despite Britain’s misgivings, he said.

A spokesperson for Brown said: “The prime minister believes that President Mugabe’s attendance will undermine the summit, diverting attention from the important issues that need to be discussed and in those circumstances he has made it clear that he will not attend.”

The EU source said Britain was likely to be represented by Africa Minister Mark Malloch-Brown.

‘Footnote’

Only Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek would join Brown in staying away.
Denmark, Sweden and The Netherlands, which had hesitated, have informed the Portuguese presidency that their prime ministers will attend, the source added.

He also said a plan to send an EU special envoy to study the situation in Zimbabwe would not be carried out until after the summit to avoid any risk of undermining

President Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to broker a deal between Mugabe and opposition parties on holding free elections next year.

Portugal has come under fire from human rights activists for the invitation to Mugabe, but African leaders have said they would not attend the Lisbon meeting if Zimbabwe were excluded.

Portugal’s Foreign Minister Luis Amado, who invited Mugabe, recently said he would prefer him not to come because his presence could distract from the essential point of the summit.

“There is no kind of diplomatic embarrassment. We deeply regret that what is being done to innovate and truly transform the relationship between Europe and Africa is being dampened by some obsession by the media around the president of Zimbabwe,” Joao Cravinho, Portuguese Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, told TSF radio in Lisbon.

“When the history of the summit in Lisbon is made this issue, which currently attracts a lot of attention, will only be mentioned as a footnote,” he added.

Western critics accuse Mugabe of ruining Zimbabwe’s economy, rigging elections and violently suppressing opposition.

Mugabe denies he has wrecked the economy with policies such as seizing white-owned farms for blacks with little experience, and he blames Western pressure for hyperinflation and hunger.

The EU agreed earlier this month to send a “clear and tough” message to Mugabe on human rights at the summit. - Reuters

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