TRIPOLI // Two days of talks between European and African leaders on development and security issues have failed to settle a simmering dispute over trade barriers that has dogged the two regions for nearly a decade.
The Afro-EU summit in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, brought together officials from 80 African and European Union countries, plus the EU and African Union, with state convoys and police escorts zooming down avenues closed to normal traffic.
The two groups last met in 2007 and agreed before they adjourned on Tuesday to undertake a raft of development projects together before meeting again in 2013. The European Union also wants African countries to accept free-trade deals known as Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which entail lowering trade barriers in return for duty-free access to European markets.
African leaders, however, say that doing so would risk flooding their markets with European goods, crushing fledgling local businesses while depriving governments of tariff revenues.
While wrangling over the EPAs began in 2002 and was to conclude in 2007, the battle of wills has dragged on and loomed over the summit despite not appearing on the official agenda.
"We want win-win relations based on mutual interest, not on exploitation," said the summit's host, the Libyan leader Muammer Qadafi, in opening remarks on Monday. "Europe talks to us about governance and human rights. Africa needs economics, not politics."
African leaders want the EU to expand duty-free access to its internal market - initially granted temporarily to poor African countries in 2007 - and maintain it as long as negotiations over the EPAs continue.
On Tuesday, the African Union chairman Jean Ping also called for greater investment in the continent.
While African countries have moved towards free-market policies in recent years, "why is it that Africa, with the exception of South Africa, still attracts less than 2 per cent of global direct foreign investments", Mr Ping said at a press conference.
The EU, meanwhile, says it wants to work more closely with African countries to help them fight corruption and shore up their structures of governance.
"Africa has a long way to go in terms of organisation," said the EU Commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, seated beside Mr Ping. "This is where I think Europe can help."
In theory, Africa and the EU have everything to gain from expanding trade and co-operation, said Thomas Cargill, the assistant head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, a foreign affairs think tank in London.
"The partnership is increasingly important for both regional groupings," Mr Cargill said. "There are so many cultural and economic links now between Europe and Africa, and increasing economic growth across Africa in particular."
The EU is Africa's main aid donor and trading partner, with trade between the two totalling €278 billion (Dh1.02 trillion) in 2008, according to EU statistics.
However, African leaders have warned that the impasse over the EPA's could nudge them towards rising powers such as China, which has invested billions of dollars in the continent in recent years.