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New scramble for Africa


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PORTUGUESE PRIME Minister José Sócrates opened the European Union-Africa Summit on Saturday morning with one objective: to find a new political consensus between the two continents.

Top of the list of priorities was human rights, in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to put democracy firmly in the centre of a strategic partnership between the EU and Africa. The other four themes discussed were peace and security, commerce and regional integration, energy and climatic changes, and migration.

But above all, Europe’s aim for the summit was to try and get in where the Chinese have already succeeded and kick-start commercial relations in a kind of post colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’.

Portugal’s interest in Africa is obvious: it is marketing itself as a bridge or gateway between Europe, Latin America and Africa playing her trump cards of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique.

In the early 15th century, Portuguese caravels set out on voyages of exploration which lead her intrepid sailors to the shores of the Dark Continent in search of wealth. Now, hundreds of years later, the game hasn’t changed that much – Portuguese, French, German, British and Italian companies are still out to conquer African markets but instead of colonial talk, the tone is “equal partners”.

Portugal saw this particular summit, the second African summit – the last one being held in Cairo in 2000 – as the icing on the cake of its Presidency. It was prepared to risk inviting Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, even at the loss of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, because, as it sees it, Africa is too important for its own businessmen and construction companies not to woo, not just because “China forced our hand”.


But the other issue was the protest made by Portugal’s former colonies Angola and Mozambique who made it clear to Portugal that they wanted Robert Mugabe to attend, and who see him as a revolutionary prepared to stand up against former colonial powers like the United Kingdom from intervening in African politics.

With trillions of gallons of oil, and several key Portuguese companies involved in the reconstruction of Angola, José Sócrates dared not invite the Zimbabwean President for fear of risking scores of lucrative construction projects in the country.  

Portugal, like many other of the core European Union countries that once had colonies, is concerned that they might be losing out in the competitiveness stakes against China, India and the Far East on a continent that once was considered its own back yard.

Commerce between Africa and China has increased five-fold and is now worth around 50 billion euros.

But it’s not just the Chinese that Europe has to worry about. India too is getting in on the act, snapping up oil and mineral concessions in the Sudan and Nigeria, while the United States is now wooing countries like Angola and Libya in a bid to reduce its dependency on Middle East crude by at least 25 per cent.

So where does all this put Portugal? Quite simply, Portugal does have a lot of expertise in construction (oil refineries, bridges, roads, warehouses) and it could benefit from developing its deep water port and refinery at Sines – one of two in Europe– and acting as a refinery intermediary between Africa, Europe and Latin America.

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