Brussels – Conflict, illegal migration and fears of more jihadist turmoil look set to dominate a mammoth summit gathering leaders of some 80 African and European Union states in Brussels on Wednesday.
More than three years after now dead Libyan leader Moamer Khadafi hosted the last EU-Africa summit in Tripoli — dedicated largely to his own glory — post-colonial and trade tensions, as well as worries over China’s influence, are lingering.
The EU has waded in to help UN and African peacekeepers restore peace there as well as in Somalia.
And ahead of Wednesday’s summit, some 30 heads of state and government, 15 from each continent, will gather to discuss the dispatch of EU troops to the Central African Republic.
Some 8,000 French and African peacekeepers in CAR have been unable to restore calm as the country descends into some of the worst violence ever seen on the continent between Christian vigilantes and Muslim rebel militias.
– ‘Mark a new stage’ –
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will attend the CAR crisis meeting starting at 1030 GMT, before joining leaders of the 54-nation African Union and 28-member European bloc for the EU-Africa summit at 1230 GMT, which runs to Thursday.
“I hope the summit will mark a new stage in our relationship with Africa,” said EU council president Herman Van Rompuy on greeting the UN chief.
It was time for a “shift from development cooperation to a partnership of equals with trade and investment playing a key role,” he added.
An overwhelming majority of leaders from both continents are attending, though a notable last-minute stay-away is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, boycotting in protest at an EU refusal to temporarily suspend a visa ban on his wife to allow her to also come to Brussels.
The EU relaxed sanctions against Zimbabwe earlier this year but maintained a travel ban against 90-year-old Mugabe and his wife for another year while agreeing the Zimbabwe president leader could travel to international forums.
Also absent will be Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the Internartional Criminal Court on genocide charges relating to Darfur — another irritant in Europe-Africa relations with some Africans complaining it is up to Africans to judge Africans.
– ‘An attractive bride’ –
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (R) welcomes Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita before a working session on April 1, 2014 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels (AFP Photo/Georges Gobet)
Trade has been another cause of tension as the two continue to struggle to agree trade deals — economic partnership agreements (EPA) — giving Africa better access to EU markets while lifting tariffs in Africa, seen as a vital source of income to governments and a protection to its fledgling industry.
Meanwhile China has increased its penetration of Africa, overtaking Europe as the main partner in 2009, while India, Brazil, Turkey and South Korea are all looking for opportunities as stability and growth improve.
“In just a few years Africa has become an attractive bride that can choose among several candidates,” said analyst Geert Laporte of the European Centre for Development Policy Management.
But Europe “right now does not have a lot of sex appeal.”
The EU continues to be Africa’s biggest trading partner and by far its largest donor but now is looking to switch from its historic role of providing assistance to a more dynamic one of investor.
“The need for investment in Africa is so huge that the more investment coming, the better,” EU development commissioner Ndris Piebalgs told AFP. “The biggest worry for me is that we would be the only investor.”
Though in the last five years Africa’s economy has grown faster than Asia’s, the continent remains mired in poverty with millions jobless and seeking to reach Europe’s shores in hopes of a better future.
Remittances, the cash sent home by migrant workers, in 2012 reached $60.4 billion, becoming the continent’s largest source of foreign income.
A key issue in consequence at the summit will be illegal migration as the EU offers to open its borders to legal migrants, students and business people in exchange for greater control by Africans of their own borders.