Leaders struggle to reach summit deal


Leaders from Africa and Europe struggled today to find common ground for a new strategic partnership at a summit marred by disagreements over future trade ties and how to deal with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

The two continents  are holding their first summit in seven years to create mutual trade benefits and cooperation over immigration and peacekeeping.

Hoping to approve shared strategic objectives for the future today, the summit's Portuguese hosts were working to smooth over sharp divisions that emerged yesterday on the first day of the meeting on the banks of Lisbon's Tagus River.

The EU approach must be one of goodwill, flexibility and understanding. We do not want any country to find itself worse off as we go into 2008
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

Around 70 leaders of the world's largest trading bloc and its poorest continent appeared at odds over Zimbabwe's human rights record and over new trade deals that the European Union wants African states to sign by the end of the year.

Pressured by China's growing investment and influence in Africa, the Europeans aimed at the summit to agree an action plan to revitalise trade with the African continent.

"We are trying to respond to the problems in all crucial topics affecting the EU and Africa," said Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates.

After Mr Mugabe 's attendance at the Lisbon summit prompted a boycott by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel put the spotlight on Zimbabwe, saying its deficient human rights record worried Europe and Africa.

Her direct criticism of the southern African state riled other African leaders, who are traditionally loathe to denigrate their peers over issues of human rights and democracy.

Rejecting Ms  Merkel's criticism as ill-informed, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade also took the EU to task for trying to pressure African countries into signing new trade accords by December 31st. A WTO waiver on preferential arrangements for developing countries' trade with the EU expires on that date.

"Me, I'm saying no, along with most of the Africans," a feisty Mr Wade told reporters last night. He warned that the EU's insistence on the trade deals risked opening up a serious gulf at a time when China and other emerging giants are courting Africa with multi-billion-dollar investments.

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.

Some EU countries worry that poor African countries' exports will face higher import tariffs if they do not agree new deals by the year end.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said last night the EU should give more time to the talks. "The EU approach must be one of goodwill, flexibility and understanding. We do not want any country to find itself worse off as we go into 2008," Mr Ahern told a news conference. His view was echoed by the Netherlands.

Anti-poverty campaigners say the interim deals Brussels is pressuring African states to sign fail to provide adequate protection for Africa's poor farmers and its fragile industry.

"It is astounding that the (European) Commission is prepared to push through such highly inequitable deals that will hurt poor farmers and undermine future development," Amy Barry, spokeswoman on trade for Oxfam, said in a statement.

"Europe must desist from this madness and commit to do all they can to ensure countries are not made poorer by ill-thought out trade deals. They must stop pressuring the remaining countries to sign," Ms Barry said.