Most African leaders on Sunday rejected new trade deals demanded by the European Union, dealing a blow to efforts to forge a new economic partnership at the first EU-Africa summit in seven years.
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade bluntly dismissed Brussels' pressure to impose new trade deals by December 31, when a waiver by the World Trade Organization on preferential trade arrangements for developing countries expires.
The EU wants to replace expiring trade accords with so-called Economic Partnership Agreements or temporary deals, which anti-poverty groups have criticized for failing to provide protection for Africa's poor farmers and its fragile industry.
While around a dozen African countries have recently agreed interim trade deals with the EU, most African leaders argue they need more time to prepare their weaker economies and societies for the impact of the end of preferential trade arrangements.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso rejected the African charge Brussels had strong-armed countries over trade, saying in a statement it was "indispensable to safeguard trade flows" between Europe and Africa after December 31.
Pressured by China's growing investment and influence in Africa, the Europeans aimed at the summit to agree an action plan to revitalize future ties with the African continent.
The atmosphere at the meeting had already been strained by differences of opinion over how to deal with Zimbabwe's leader, Robert Mugabe. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Africa's image was being damaged by a lack of resolve to stop human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
The two continents, close neighbors through geography but worlds apart in terms of development, held their first summit in seven years hoping to put in place mutually beneficial trade terms and cooperation over immigration and peacekeeping.
But the thorny trade issue, which was especially pertinent because of the end-of-year deadline, upset the summit's efforts.
Merkel said EU leaders would discuss trade with Africa at an EU summit on Friday. "We are going to look again if Europe can be more flexible," Merkel told reporters, adding the December 31 deadline was not fixed in stone.
An EU spokesman said foreign ministers would meet on Monday to discuss whether to raise tariffs on African nations that reject accords.
"From a legal point of view there is this possibility (to raise tariffs), but we have to take a political decision," said European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Altafaj.
Anti-poverty campaigners argued the trade deals would be damaging for poor African economies.
"Europe must desist from this madness and commit to do all they can to ensure countries are not made poorer by ill-thought out trade deals. They must stop pressuring the remaining countries to sign," said Oxfam trade spokeswoman Amy Barry.
AgenciesGüncelleme Tarihi: 10 Aralık 2007, 14:04