LISBON (Reuters) - Africa and Europe’s first summit in seven years ended on Sunday without agreement on the key issue of trade, dealing a blow to efforts to forge a new economic partnership between the two continents.
More than 70 European and African leaders were also at odds on how to deal with Zimbabwe, which was singled out along with Sudan by German Chancellor Angela Merkel for not respecting human rights.
The two-day summit ended with an ambitious action plan and a promise to meet again in 2010. But the world’s largest trading bloc and its poorest continent were at loggerheads over trade, which would be the basis for future economies ties.
The EU is Africa’s largest commercial partner, with trade totaling more than 215 billion euros ($315.2 billion) in 2006. But EU officials and businessmen fear growing Chinese investment in Africa could displace Europe from the top spot.
Beijing held a summit for African leaders last year, wooing them with multibillion-dollar trade investment contracts.
The EU wants to replace expiring trade accords with so-called Economic Partnership Agreements or temporary deals, which anti-poverty groups have criticized for failing to provide protection for Africa’s poor farmers and its fragile industry.
“It’s clear that Africa rejects the EPAs,” Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade angrily told reporters. “We are not talking any more about EPAs, we’ve rejected them ... we’re going to meet to see what we can put in place of the EPAs.”
Brussels insists on new trade deals by December 31, when a waiver by the World Trade Organization on preferential trade arrangements for developing countries expires.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso said Brussels was not strong-arming countries over trade, but said if interim deals were not signed “the preferential agreement will no more be applicable from January 1, 2008”.
The EU was ready to continue talks. “What we are saying is let’s have interim accords to avoid trade disruption,” he said.
While around a dozen African countries have recently agreed interim trade deals with the EU, most African leaders argue they need more time to prepare their weaker economies and societies for the impact of the end of preferential trade arrangements.
Germany´s Merkel said EU leaders would discuss trade with
Africa at an EU summit on Friday. “We are going to look again if Europe can be more flexible,” Merkel told reporters, adding the December 31 deadline was not fixed in stone.
African Union Commission President Alpha Oumar Konare criticized the handful of interim trade deals signed.
“Our dearest hope is that the interim accords don’t tie down the rest (of the countries) and complicate things afterwards,” he said. “If we build our partnership on the weakness of unity in Africa we’ll have problems.”
Human rights and anti-poverty campaigners said they were disappointed by the meager results at the summit.
“If you wait seven years and then try to force through deals by the end of the year, you will inevitably end up with an exercise in grandstanding and not real progress ... we think this is a waste,” said Martin Kirk of British charity Save the Children.
The atmosphere at the meeting had already been strained by differences of opinion over how to deal with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Merkel said Africa’s image was being damaged by a lack of resolve to stop human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
African leaders insisted that Mugabe, who is seen by many in Africa as an independence hero, be invited to the summit, prompting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to stay away.
When asked by a Reuters reporter what his message to Europe was, a smiling Mugabe lifted his fist in the air in defiance.
Mozambique President Armando Guebuza said it was worthwhile that Mugabe attended. “It proved that just because people disagree they can enter into a dialogue,” he said.
But the two continents, close neighbors through geography but worlds apart in terms of development, did sign a declaration committing them to establish a strategic political “partnership of equals”. Their joint declaration promised cooperation on investment, development, human rights and peacekeeping.
“We are resolved to build a new strategic political partnership for the future, overcoming the traditional donor-recipient relationship,” the statement said.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Henrique Almeida, Pascal Fletcher, Sergio Goncalves, Elisabete Tavares, Ruben Bicho, Angelika Stricker; writing by Axel Bugge, editing by Mary Gabriel