Barroso defends decision to invite Mugabe to conference

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Indy Politics

The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, has defended inviting Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to attend this weekend's EU-Africa summit, in an implicit criticism of Gordon Brown who decided to stay away in protest against Mr Mugabe's misrule.

"Life has taught me that if you are in international politics, sometimes you have to meet people that your mother would not like to see you with," Mr Barroso told a news conference in Brussels. Although he added that he respected the Prime Minister's decision to boycott the summit, he went on: "If international leaders decided not to go to those conferences involving countries which do not have reasonable human rights records, I'm afraid we would not be attending many conferences at all."

After announcing the boycott in The Independent, Mr Brown has softened his position and is now sending Baroness Amos, a former international development secretary. A senior Foreign Office official described her as "someone of real significance", but said the Prime Minister felt that he or a senior minister "could not sit down with Mugabe because of the dramatic situation" in Zimbabwe.

Activists have complained that human rights are not on the summit agenda, but the Foreign Office official said Britain expected the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others to "register unequivocally their concern about what is happening in Zimbabwe".

Mr Barroso noted that human rights would be the first topic at the summit's plenary session, saying: "It's true that there has been a very negative trend in the Zimbabwe regime and this is something that we will have to broach."

Britain hopes that the summit's trade and development agenda will not be upstaged by Mr Mugabe. But with a group photo and banquet planned tomorrow there will be plenty of opportunity for him to capture the limelight.