Continental drift

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 30/11/07):

Given the high priority he attached to African development during his time as chancellor, Gordon Brown’s personal boycott of next week’s 80-country EU-Africa summit in Lisbon is raising eyebrows among participants. British prime ministers frequently disagree with their European counterparts, but they usually show up to fight their corner. And generally speaking, they do not hide from dictators.

Although Britain will be represented in Lisbon, Brown’s vow to stay away allowed Robert Mugabe, whose expected presence at the summit caused the row, to mock the PM’s «timidity». The wily Zimbabwean president, whose UN-documented misgovernance and human rights abuses have reduced the former British colony to penury, was deliberately echoing David Cameron’s Tories. They regularly accuse Brown of «bottling» tough choices.

Brown’s fear of being «ambushed» by Mugabe, as famously happened to the then-foreign secretary Jack Straw at the UN in 2004, is likely to affect more than his reputation. His disdain for the EU, and his lack of networking with other European leaders since taking office, came home to roost this week. With the possible exception of the Czech Republic, not a single country is following his lead.

Germany and France have been notably unsupportive. Having personally confronted China and Russia over human rights, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has consistently argued that Mugabe’s critics should tell him what they think face-to-face. France, a traditional rival for influence in Africa, may be privately enjoying British discomfort.

The Portuguese EU presidency and the European commission believe the stakes are too high to allow Brown’s «local difficulty» with Mugabe to derail the summit, as has happened in the past. Officials say it is the first such meeting for seven years and will be pivotal in advancing a new «strategic partnership» between Africa and Europe. The partnership eventually aims to embrace counter-terrorism, good governance, peacekeeping in places such as Darfur, trade, debt relief, migration and climate change – all global issues highlighted in Brown’s recent Mansion House speech.

Rapidly growing competition from China for African business is giving added edge to EU efforts to calm tempers and strengthen ties. According to the European Policy Centre, the EU accounts for 75% of sub-Saharan Africa’s trade. It is also the biggest aid donor. But this may not last. European investment, imports and exports to Africa are all falling.

In contrast, three China-Africa summits have been held since 2000. Total two-way trade is expected to be worth $100bn by 2010, compared with $39bn in 2005. Africa now supplies a third of China’s oil imports and a range of increasingly valuable raw materials. And Beijing is increasing its advantage by refusing to join the EU in linking good governance and human rights to business deals in places like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Tomaz Salomao, the executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), told the Herald newspaper in Harare this week that African leaders were also keen to stop Mugabe hijacking the summit. «The SADC will not go to Lisbon to discuss Zimbabwe because the summit is not about Zimbabwe but about relations between the EU and Africa,» he said.

But at the same time, speculation is growing that Thabo Mbeki, the South African president and SADC mediator, may use the occasion to unveil a blueprint for cooperation between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe’s main opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change. Mbeki, whose policy of «quiet diplomacy» has been widely criticised for failing to halt political repression, economic meltdown and a mass exodus of impoverished Zimbabweans, held talks with Mugabe this week. Mbeki reportedly urged him to modify tough security and media censorship laws ahead of elections due next year.

Running out of time in his battle to retain leadership of the African National Congress, Mbeki needs a political success. Under growing pressure from neighbours and within his own party, Mugabe may also be calculating a shift is required if he is to hang on to power. Speaking this week, Louis Michel, the European development commissioner, claimed Mbeki was making progress. «I really expect President Mbeki to succeed and I think we have a duty to help him,» he said.

Not everybody thinks Brown is wrong. The former Labour minister Denis MacShane says the EU should never have invited Mugabe. «Instead of showing solidarity with the victims of his dictatorship, Europe raises a glass to their tyrant,» he wrote in today’s Figaro. But as the US comedian Woody Allen once suggested, 80% of success in life comes from «showing up». Sitting sulkily on the sidelines in London, Brown may yet regret his one-man no-show.