Monday, December 10, 2007

Historic EU-Africa summit ends in Lisbon

The two day summit in Lisbon between EU and African leaders has ended in dispute over trade and human rights issues despite the two sides signing a “declaration” promoting free trade and democracy. Over 70 European and African heads of state gathered for the first inter-continental conference in seven years and produced an ambitious action plan covering issues as diverse as immigration and climate change.

The summit had the ambitious goal (pdf) of promoting a common agenda on political and economic issues, common positions on international conflict and promoting better representation of African interests in international institutions. The conference identified eight partnership opportunities in peace and security, governance, trade, developmental goals, energy, climate change, migration and science. But it was trade which proved to be the biggest hurdle.

The nub of the trade problem is the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) proposed to replace existing agreements due to expire at the end of the year. Anti-poverty groups have criticised EPAs for failing to provide protection for Africa's poor farmers and its fragile industry. ACP countries are unlikely to gain better access to the European market but will see their local industries put under severe strain by competition from cheap and subsidised European imports. The European Commission's own impact assessment notes that, ‘EPAs could lead to the collapse of the manufacturing sector in West Africa’. The EU threatened to withdraw African tariff-free access to European markets under rules laid down by the World Trade Organization if they didn’t agree to the EPAs. Nonetheless President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal was emphatic. “We are not talking any more about EPAs, we've rejected them,” he said.

A total of six EPAs were being negotiated, on a regional basis, with groups of countries in West Africa, Central Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, the Southern African Development Community, the Caribbean and the Pacific. As well as tariff issues, Africa is not happy with the EU's insistence on tying aid and investment to improvements in democracy and human rights. Africa's negotiating position has been strengthened by its growing relations with China and the loans they offer on a ‘no conditions’ basis.

The EU remains Africa's largest commercial partner, with trade total more than $315 billion in 2006. But EU officials and businessmen fear growing Chinese investment in Africa. Beijing held a summit for 45 African leaders last year to celebrate a tenfold increase in China’s trade with Africa. While China has massively increased its investments in Africa, it conveniently does not comment on issues such as democracy and human rights. As the Times states: “[China does] not threaten to arrest their ministers and haul them before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. They do not hector Mugabe or demand that [Sudan's president] Bashir accept UN troops. They just want to buy oil.”

The main focus for Human rights issues in the EU Summit centred around the appearance of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. British PM Gordon Brown had stayed away from the conference in protest at Mugabe’s presence. After being criticised by German chancellor Angela Merkel who was backed up by the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, Mugabe denounced European critics of his government as being ill-informed stooges of Britain, the former colonial power in Zimbabwe. Mugabe retains the support of his fellow African leaders. In a closed session, he called his European critics "Gordon's gang of four” but otherwise kept a low profile at the conference refusing to speak to the media.

Away from human rights, there was progress on climate change, which is among the most serious threats to African stability in the next few years. The threat takes the form of floods and droughts and their effects on food security and water management. One ambitious project discussed at the summit involved establishing a "green wall" around the Sahara desert to push back desertification. That would take the form of large dams, water collection areas and tree-planting.

Immigration is another highly contentious area with the EU committed to the “blue card” plan aimed at attracting highly skilled workers to replace its own rapidly ageing work force. However that is unlikely to resolve the biggest issue between the EU and Africa: the wave of illegal immigration. Spanish PM Jose Luiz Zapatero said Europe and Africa had to work together to boost education, employment and infrastructure in Africa to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. Spain is the worst affected country with 31,000 arriving across the straits each year. Zapatero said the problem “produces citizens that are vulnerable to human trafficking, abuse and without any rights in the countries of destination." Libyan president Gaddafy said this was a problem of Europe’s making. "Either you give us back our resources or you invite us in your countries,” he said.

The conference also re-iterated the Cotonou Agreement with sub-Saharan Africa, despite the EU desire to replace it with the EPAs,. Signed in Cotonou, Benin in 2000, the agreement outlined five pillars in the fight against global poverty: an enhanced political dimension, increased participation, a more strategic approach to cooperation focusing on poverty reduction, new economic and trade partnerships and improved financial cooperation.

Despite the many disagreements, hosts Portugal was upbeat about the impact of the summit. The event was the top priority of Portugal’s six-month presidency of the EU, and they spent €10m staging the two-day event. José Sócrates, the Portuguese prime minister said optimistically the conference would help dispel colonial guilt and resentment, and would lay the foundation for a new relationship between the EU and Africa. Although Portugal’s colonial record in Mozambique and Angola was appalling, the Portuguese Prime Minister was keen to stress his country’s long-standing involvement in African affairs. “It was from Lisbon that Europe first came to know Africa,” said Sócrates. “Now in the same city the two continents are renewing their relationship.”

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