A major meeting of European and African leaders, aimed at boosting relations between the two continents as China tightens its grip on the former European colonies’ economies, was overshadowed by Africa’s refusal to sign up to comprehensive trade liberalisation agreements.
An EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon on 8-9 December ended with the signing of a strategic political “partnership of equals” that, according to the text, will serve to overcome “the traditional donor-recipient relationship”. The joint declaration promised cooperation on investment, development, human rights and peacekeeping and came with a detailed action plan for the coming three years.
However, the two continents failed to reach agreement on comprehensive trade deals – the so-called “Economic Partnership Agreements” – that the EU hoped to conclude with African nations before the end of the year.
“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,” Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told a press conference after the summit.
Instead, the EU signed “interim agreements” with a number of African countries, covering only trade in goods and leaving out sensitive issues, such as opening up developing countries’ services and investment markets.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned that – apart from the poorest African countries, whose exports would continue to benefit from zero-tariffs under EU trade provisions for Least Developed Countries – those countries that refused to rapidly accept the new trade deal would be faced with the re-imposition of tariffs.
However, Africa’s negotiating position has been strengthened by its increasingly tight relations with China, which is threatening to knock Europe off the top spot as Africa’s number one investor and trading partner.
China’s investment approach to Africa – for example offering loans in return for natural resources on a ‘no conditions’ basis – has been much more popular in Africa than the EU’s insistence on tying aid and investment to improvements in terms of democracy and human rights.
The divergence between the two continents on these issues was highlighted by the presence of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, accused by Europeans of persistent human right abuses in his country and impoverishing his citizens, but defended by many in Africa as an independence hero. His presence at what was only the second EU-Africa summit in the past seven years prompted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to boycott the whole event.