©Reuters By Douglas Hamilton
CAIRO, April 4 (Reuters) - European Union and African leaders found some common ground on Tuesday on the need to build democracy on the continent, but the spectre of a new famine in East Africa loomed over their ground-breaking summit.
In a debate that delegates said was largely devoid of polemics, EU leaders put their case for political reform and respect for human rights in Africa, while the Africans stressed they were on the road to democracy but pleaded for time, money and patience.
Voicing sympathy with African calls for faster debt relief, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook cautioned: "I would be concerned if this discussion were to develop the concept that there are European values and African values of freedom.
"We come here as equals. We should aspire to achieve the same equality of freedom for our peoples," he told the summit, praising the fact that there were three times as many democracies in Africa today as 30 years ago.
President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin pointed to the presence at the conference table of outgoing Senegalese President Abdou Diouf, defeated in a poll last month and about to hand over to his elected successor, as "living testimony to the possibility of democratic transition in Africa".
Citing internal armed conflict as the scourge of the world's poorest continent and the main obstacle to economic development, the 15 EU leaders urged their 52 African counterparts to use more democracy and cleaner government as a cure for these ills.
European Development Commissioner Poul Nielsen said European businessmen blamed corruption as a major reason why Africa received little more than 1 percent of global investment.
Diplomats said African countries were trying to water down a clause in the final declaration committing them to fight against corruption and were demanding a firmer commitment to return looted funds stashed in European banks to their treasuries.
EU TO ACT ON FAMINE
Nielsen said Europe was making urgent plans for emergency food shipments to the famine-stricken Horn of Africa but war between Eritrea and Ethiopia would hamper logistic.
He discussed the looming food crisis with the presidents of Eritrea and Djibouti and the foreign minister of Ethiopia.
"We are getting organised and we see this (famine) as a big threat coming," Nielsen told a news conference, saying the EU and other donors planned to send some 800,000 tonnes of food aid to Ethiopia.
The United Nations on Monday warned that up to 16 million people in northeast Africa were threatened by starvation after poor rains, successive crop failures and population displacement due partly to armed conflicts in the region.
A communique thrashed out on Sunday and due to be issued at the close of the conference contains compromise language on the importance of democratic principles and civil society, which EU officials acknowledged had been watered down.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, under fire over the seizure of white-owned farms and the use of force against peaceful anti-government demonstrators, did not take up his reserved slot to speak in the democracy debate.
Mugabe, who met Cook on Monday, told reporters he had agreed to talks with Britain on differences with the former colonial power.
Many African leaders who can remember the days of European colonial rule on their continent say they will not be lectured by the affluent European Union, whose members are embarking on a long-term strategy that embraces Africa as a whole.
Instead, virtually all African states at the summit stressed the need for radical measures to relieve the debt burden.
The Europeans resisted African calls for a general conference on that issue, saying there was no universal solution to fit all debt cases. They agreed only to draft a joint report on the problem, but the EU expects that process to be tortuous.
By contrast, European countries whose national museums and mansions house African cultural treasures were in for a moral lecture when the issue of their restitution is discussed.
An African bid to insert communique language aimed at isolating Israel over its suspected nuclear weapons capability was rejected at German and Dutch insistence.
On the summit's fringes, mercurial Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi continued his honeymooh with Europe, meeting French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar after delivering an anti-Western rant on Monday which irked EU officials.
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