EU looks to redefine relations with Africa
By Honor Mahony
EU and African leaders will gather for their first summit in seven years on Friday (7 December), with the state of human rights in several African countries taking a back row seat as the EU tries to win more influence in the poor but resource-rich continent.
In the run-up to the summit, the EU faced several awkward questions about whether it should be sharing a political stage with leaders such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
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But there is a growing feeling in the bloc that it must work on getting closer ties with Africa, with China already active and strongly influential in the continent for several years.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said that life had taught him that in international politics "[you] meet people that your mother would not like to see you with."
He noted that "we are not going to participate in many global conference" if respect for human rights is the condition for taking part.
Development commissioner Louis Michel said that if the EU had meddled in the invitation list, then the summit would not have taken place. He said he did not want the meeting "to be taken hostage by the Mugabe question."
Both commissioners stressed that summit was about putting Africa on an even keel with the EU, wiping away the cobwebs of a colonial past.
Mr Barroso said the summit marks a "new departure" in relations and that it was now time for a policy with Africa rather than a policy for Africa.
But although Europe is Africa's biggest trade partner and it is the main investor in the continent, it has been slow to act on the ground and has only lately woken up to Africa's resource potential.
China has been quicker off the mark investing billions of euros in the continent but not attaching any conditions to aid, unlike the EU which pushes countries on issues such as good governance.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations thinktank, trade between Africa and China grew by 700 percent in the 1990s.
Last year bilateral trade increased by 40 percent, a similar percentage growth has been seen every year since 2001.
A large part of the reason for the growth is China's need to fuel its fast-growing economy.
Now Europe, dependent on unpredictable Russia for a quarter of its oil and gas, is also looking to diversify its energy supplies.
But both Africa and the EU also needs to consider other major issues such as immigration and the fight against climate change.
Each year thousands of Africans try to reach southern EU states often dying in the attempt. The EU is set to push for more commitment from African countries to cut down on illegal immigration in return for setting a system offering skilled workers a job in Europe.
Meanwhile, on climate change which particularly affects African countries, the EU has said that South Africa needs to be among those emerging countries who "limit the intensity" of their greenhouse gas emissions.
The EU and Africa last had a summit in Cairo in 2000. A planned meeting in 2003 was cancelled because of Mugabe.
This time around the British prime minister Gordon Brown has refused to attend the meeting, which also includes other leaders who do not have a clean human rights record, such as Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir and Libya leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek is also expected stay away from the meeting because of the Zimbabwean leader.