/ 7 December 2007

Mugabe looms over EU-Africa summit

The leaders of Africa and the Europe Union (EU) gathered in Lisbon on Friday for a summit designed to forge a new era in ties, but which is in danger of being overshadowed by the presence of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

The two-day summit in the Portuguese capital — the first such get-together in seven years — is set to be dominated by issues such as trade, immigration, the environment and human rights when it formally begins on Saturday morning.

But the presence of Mugabe and subsequent no-show by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Friday’s gala dinner will serve as a reminder of the complexity of ties between Europe and their one-time colonies.

Mugabe, usually banned from the EU for allegedly rigging his 2002 re-election, flew into Lisbon late on Thursday after finally securing an invitation to the summit despite Brown’s best efforts to block him.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has said the subject of Zimbabwe should not overshadow the summit, although he promised on Thursday that allegations of rights abuses would not be swept under the carpet.

”There has been a very negative trend in the Zimbabwe regime and this is something we will have to broach,” Barroso said. ”But this is not just a summit to look at Zimbabwe.”

Host Portugal sees the summit as an opportunity to forge a partnership of equals and banish the master and servant relationship to the colonial history books.

”This historic summit should allow us to turn the page and establish a genuinely equal partnership between Europe and Africa,” said the Foreign Ministry’s Secretary of State, João Gomes Cravinho.

Barroso has acknowledged Europe let relations in its former hunting ground drift and there are now plans for such a gathering every third year.

Europe remains Africa’s biggest trading partner and source of aid but China’s growing push into the resource-rich continent as it seeks to fuel its economic growth has shown its influence cannot be taken for granted.

Hopes of a breakthrough on new economic partnership agreements have been dashed this week with South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse, saying the ”detrimental impacts” of the deal offered by the EU had to be addressed.

The issue of trade is one of five topics of common interest due to be debated with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, due to present Europe’s case.

Discussions on efforts to deploy peacekeepers to Sudan’s Darfur region, the conflict in Somalia and Zimbabwe have not been formally timetabled but are expected to crop up in debates on human rights and peace and security.

Brown, the only significant EU absentee, has long insisted he will not sit down with Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.

However, his campaign to have Mugabe barred was derailed when other Southern African leaders threatened to stay away in solidarity. They have also publicly backed Mugabe’s demand for Britain to honour earlier pledges to fund land redistribution.

All but a handful of Africa’s 53 heads of state were due, notable exceptions being the ailing Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, who is fighting for re-election later this month.

Veteran Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi, whose relations with Europe are on the upturn after the release of a group of Bulgarian nurses accused of deliberately infecting children with HIV/Aids, has set up base in a tent just outside of town.

A massive security operation has been put in place, with roads sealed off and helicopters seen buzzing over the exhibition centre where about 5 000 delegates and journalists are to gather.

A series of protests are scheduled, including by Zimbabwean rights activists, while anti-globalisation activists are planning an alternative ”summit”. — AFP