SCORES of European and African leaders and officials gathered in Brussels on Wednesday for a major summit meeting overshadowed by bloodletting in the Central African Republic and lingering postcolonial resentments.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe had sought to organise a boycott of the gathering to protest European influence over the list of participants.
Mugabe and his wife, Grace, are restricted in their ability to travel to Western countries because of visa bans, part of European sanctions imposed in response to the Zimbabwean government’s human rights record. The Mugabes are routinely granted waivers to attend major international gatherings, but European officials said there was no programme for spouses at the Brussels meeting, and Grace Mugabe was not invited.
President Jacob Zuma of South Africa also announced that he would not attend the meeting of European Union and African Union countries, saying he had other commitments. Echoing Mugabe, he has publicly complained that African leaders are “looked on as subjects” and are told “who must come, who must not come.”
The absences seemed to recall earlier days of Africa’s relationship with Europe, some experts said.
“Past summits have been unable to escape the taint of Europe’s past imperialism in Africa,” Alex Vines, an Africa expert at Chatham House, a policy institute in London, said in a commentary on EUobserver, an online newspaper. “But both Africa and Europe have changed. With multiple suitors competing for access to Africa’s natural resources and markets, European countries can no longer assume advantage of access as a neocolonial legacy.”
“Reciprocally,” he added, “African states should not assume that rhetoric about imperialism will continue to hold water as a means to influence Europe.”
The organisers also withheld an invitation to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on war crimes charges.
The two-day gathering was preceded on Wednesday by a smaller meeting of African and European leaders with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, to discuss the crisis in the Central African Republic. Ban is seeking support for a peacekeeping force to be deployed there.
“We are deeply concerned about the desperate plight of the people of the Central African Republic,” Ban said before the meeting, according to news reports. “At today’s meeting I will urge all countries to strongly consider providing badly needed additional troops and police and providing funding and support.”
On Tuesday, the European Union finished plans for a 1,000-member peacekeeping force to operate out of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Its mission is to bolster the 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers who have been unable to stem months of bloodletting involving Christian militias, Muslims and foreign troops.
The United Nations said Tuesday that the fighting had killed more than 60 people and injured more than 100 in the past 10 days.
The last full summit meeting of the European Union and African Union countries was held in Libya in 2010, before the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
Apart from efforts to heal regional conflicts, the relationship between the two blocs — which include 28 European and 54 African countries — is driven by themes like trade imbalances, China’s growing economic presence in Africa, unlawful migration and the influence of jihadist groups, particularly in North Africa and parts of East Africa.
The European Union provides about 45 per cent of official development aid to African countries and has played an increasingly prominent role in supporting peace missions there. Many European countries are eager to foster African economic growth that might dissuade migrants from seeking refuge in Europe, often after perilous voyages across the Mediterranean Sea.
On Wednesday alone, officials in Rome said, the Italian navy rescued 730 people aboard two packed vessels south of Sicily, according to news reports. With mild spring weather bringing calm seas, the number of migrants from North Africa has increased sharply in recent weeks, and thousands of people have been rescued.
By ALAN COWELL
c.2014 New York Times News Service