EU, African leaders seek new era

Leaders of Europe and Africa opened a landmark summit on Saturday designed to forge a new partnership of equals, but with strains showing over trade and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s presence.

”We are here to respond to an invitation from history … to write a new page in the history of Europe and Africa,” Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates said in an inaugural address.

He welcomed the leaders to ”a summit of equals” where some of the thorniest topics, such as human rights abuses and the conflict in Darfur, would be discussed.

”We will have a frank and open political dialogue where there are no taboos, no sacred cows,” said Socrates, whose country holds the current European Union presidency.

Special debates have been scheduled on issues such as trade, security and human rights where Mugabe’s record is expected to come under attack.

”Human rights are a universal heritage of humanity which we have to preserve and defend … We have put human rights at the centre of not only our agenda, but [also] our strategy,” he added.

The summit is only the second such gathering after an inaugural meeting in Cairo in 2000. Socrates said he was ”well aware of the difficulties, obstacles that have to be overcome”.

Ghana’s President John Kufuor, the current chairperson of the African Union, acknowledged that history divided the two continents.

”For almost 500 years the relationship between our two continents has not been a happy one,” he said. ”The real significance of the summit must be to lay the new foundations of a new partnership of mutual respect.”

A total of 67 heads of state are attending the two-day summit in the Portuguese capital in what organisers hope will result in a more equal relationship between the former colonial powers and Africa.

”The objective today is to bring about a change in the nature of the relationship between Africa and the EU,” EU development commissioner Louis Michel told reporters.

While the EU wants the summit to open a new chapter in relations, they are struggling to escape the burden of history with Libya’s leader Moammar Gadaffi calling on Friday for compensation for the colonial era.

The summit marks a return to the European stage for Mugabe, usually banned from the EU for allegedly rigging his 2002 re-election, and whose presence has prompted ex-colonial power Britain to keep its ministers at home.

A beaming Mugabe was one of the last to arrive ahead of the formal opening, following his rival headline-grabber Gadaffi down the red carpet.

Other European leaders, however, have ignored Britain’s lead and argued that dialogue is the best place to deal with issues, such as Mugabe’s rights record.

Socrates said: ”For a number of years the relationship between the EU and Zimbabwe made it impossible for the summit to be held … But through our joints efforts we will be able to achieve better results on all the issues on our agenda. Let’s focus on the future.”

Zimbabwe is likely to feature when German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks for the EU during the rights and governance debate. South African President Thabo Mbeki will reply on behalf of Africa.

While the rights debate is likely to dominate headlines, the stickiest issue could be trade where Europe has failed to persuade many African countries to sign up to new pacts once existing agreements expire at the year’s end.

AU commission president Alpha Oumar Konare said Africa would ”no longer be merely exporters of raw materials or accept being a mere import market”, adding: ”It’s important we avoid patterns of thinking that belong to a different era.”

Europe still remains the major market for African goods, but China’s presence in the resource-rich continent is growing by the day as it seeks to fuel its economic growth.

Chinese soft loans, which rarely come with strings attached, have gratefully been received by African countries often frustrated by the conditions that accompany European aid packages. — Sapa-AFP

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