AFRICAN leaders have dismissed free trade deals demanded by the European Union, placing a cloud over an agreement between the two continents forge a new relationship based on equality.
The failure to make progress on the Economic Partnerships Agreements (EPAs) in Portugal came at talks marred by disputes over Zimbabwe and Darfur.
Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal's president, said : "It was said several times during the plenary session and it was said again this morning: African states reject the EPAs." The deals were not to have been concluded at the summit, but it had been seen as a chance to make progress on the issue.
||Economic co-operation "The partnership should strive to bridge the development divide between Africa and Europe through the strengthening of economic co-operation and the promotion of sustainable development in both continents," it said.
But, although about one dozen African countries have already agreed interim trade deals with the EU, many continued to argue that they needed more time to prepare their economies and societies for the end of preferential trade arrangements.
Wade said: "I agree with this spirit of creating a new relationship [with Europe], but we have to define what that relationship is.
"It's clear that Africa rejects the EPAs".
Anti-poverty campaigners have criticised the deals for failing to provide protection for Africa's poor farmers and its fragile industry.
Amy Barry, Oxfam trade spokeswoman, said: "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."
Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, European Commission president, defended the EPAs, saying that they were "indispensable to safeguard trade flows" between Europe and Africa after December 31, when a World Trade Organisation waiver on preferential agreements ends.
"Our objective has always been and remains to conclude economic partnership agreements which aim at strengthening regional integration and bring genuine development to African countries," he said.
"Obviously this is difficult because it implies change... It is a challenge for both Africans and Europeans and will require time."
The deals - to replace historical agreements which gave former European colonies preferential trade terms - demand that African countries open their markets to European goods in order to keep tariff-free EU access for their own exports.
The summit was seen as an EU attempt regain lost ground in Africa and combat growing Chinese influence in the continent. But President Wade said that "Europe is close to losing the battle of competition in Africa".
As the conference began, deep differences over the human rights record of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and over measures to end the conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur were evident.
Asked what his message to Europe was as he arrived at the summit, Mugabe said nothing, but raised his arm and made a fist.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was "united" in condemning Mugabe for what they view as his economic mismanagement, failure to curb corruption and contempt for democracy.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stayed away from the summit in protest of Mugabe's attendance.