Brown's plan for Zimbabwe envoy splits EU nations

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The Independent Online

Britain is at the centre of a diplomatic row over Gordon Brown's proposal to send an EU envoy to Zimbabwe ahead of a landmark EU summit with African states to assess human rights abuses under President Robert Mugabe. The divisive issue of the envoy will be discussed by EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg today. Diplomatic sources say Germany is opposed to the idea while Nordic states agree with Mr Brown.

The Prime Minister caused dismay in Brussels and Africa when he announced in The Independent last month that he would boycott the first EU-Africa summit in four years, which is expected to raise relations between the two continents to a new level, if Mr Mugabe is present. At a press conference last week, Mr Brown insisted: "I will not attend. No senior government minister will attend. We are not prepared to sit at the same table as Mr Mugabe because we are not prepared to give any suggestion that we condone what is an abuse of human rights in his country, the poverty and degradation of his people and the unacceptable behaviour of him as president."

France is sympathetic to Mr Brown's view but believes Britain has a "historical problem" with Zimbabwe, a senior French official said. Reflecting a widespread opinion among European leaders, he added: "We don't want the summit to be a flop." That position has led Britain to examine whether Mr Mugabe might be inclined to let in an EU envoy before the summit, although a Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "I wouldn't say we're pushing it. Let's say we're exploring it with our partners."

Several African leaders are opposed to the envoy proposal, including the South African president Thabo Mbeki, who believes that talks brokered by his country between the Zimbabwean government and the main opposition parties, about plans to hold free and fair elections next year, are at a critical stage.

"It risks doing two things – strengthening tensions around Zimbabwe between the EU and the Africans and intervening in an unhelpful way in the process in Zimbabwe, which is being managed by Mr Mbeki," said an EU official. "Any interference from the West, especially Britain, risks being used to derail the process." The official stressed that if, as seems likely, Mr Mugabe shows up in Lisbon, the EU would be determined to highlight the human rights abuses under his leadership. Invitations to the December summit are expected to be issued later this week. Portugal, which holds the EU presidency, shows no sign of dropping plans to invite Mr Mugabe. He is still banned from travelling to the EU but the ban can be lifted temporarily in such circumstances. The Southern African Development Community has warned that its 14 members will boycott the summit if an invitation to Mr Mugabe is withheld.

Meanwhile, African non-governmental organisations which took part in a survey on Africa's relations with Europe, carried out by the British Overseas NGOs for Development (Bond) network, accused the EU of continuing to have a "colonial" attitude towards the continent. Marco Serena, of Bond, said African civil society wanted to "avoid another negotiation behind closed doors that will not bring benefits to people but to an elite in both Africa and Europe". He added: "From now to the Lisbon summit and beyond, we will challenge both the EU and the African Union to a reality-check about the way they are conducting Europe-Africa relations."

John Clancy, a spokesman for the EU development commissioner, said the point of the summit was to show that "together we can develop a dialogue and partnership of equals".

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