Brussels: Coming weekend will see a rare inter-regional summit with the EU leaders meeting their African counterparts in an attempt to show that they have shed their colonial attitudes and can counter China’s growing influence in the region.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s vow not to attend any conference attended by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has cast a neo-colonial pall over the two-day summit even before it starts in Lisbon on 8 December.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its 1980 independence from Britain, is accused by the West of stifling democracy and leading the country to economic collapse.
Other EU leaders are keen that the summit goes ahead without being overshadowed by the high-profile spat. German Chancellor Angela Merkel summed up the mood , while promising that the issue of Zimbabwe would not be “swept under the carpet at the summit.”
“This is such an important summit meeting that we should not let the presence of one country keep us from paying our respects to the rest of the continent,” she said after talks in Berlin with Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who blasted Brown’s decision to boycott the summit.
Earlier, the absence of Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair did not prevent the inaugural EU-Africa summit from taking place in 2000. This time around 48 African leaders have accepted the invitation from the Portuguese EU presidency, including Mugabe.
The European Commission has also been keen that the summit goes ahead and sets the right tone for European-African relations.
“African leaders are becoming more and more critical of Europe’s old-fashioned thinking and we must clearly understand that Africa is no longer Europe’s private hunting ground,” said Louis Michel, European development commissioner.
The EU-Africa summit would be the ideal place to establish a real “political partnership” so as to become players on “the great African chessboard,” alongside Brazil, China, India and the United States, Michel added.
At present the European Union is Africa’s biggest trading partner. China sits in the third place but its growing aid, investments and influence in the region were reflected in November 2006 when the inaugural China-Africa summit was held.
“There is a real sense that China is running rampant on the African continent without the EU wielding any influence,” argues Hugo Brady, research fellow at London’s Centre for European Reform.
One of the main summit objectives is a new EU-Africa joint strategy, expected to be adopted at the summit covering areas including, peace and security, good governance and human rights and trade and regional integration.
EU countries such as France, Spain and Malta will be keen to discuss the immigration problem, with Centre of European Reform researcher Brady expecting discussion on various ideas including agreement for African nations to take back illegal immigrants from Europe in return for extra EU work visas.