The EU commissioner with responsibility for Zimbabwe has expressed dismay at the consequences of Gordon Brown's threatened boycott of the forthcoming EU-Africa summit over the presence of President Robert Mugabe.
There were fears last night that Mr Brown's move could lead to the total collapse of the Lisbon summit. Zambia's President, Levy Mwanawasa, said not only would he boycott the meeting if Mr Mugabe was not invited, but other African leaders may also do so. "I will not go to Portugal if Mugabe is not allowed. I don't know how many of us [African leaders] will be prepared to go to Portugal without Mugabe," said Mr Mwanawasa.
Louis Michel, the EU development commissioner, said the Zimbabwe row "cannot take hostage the relations between two continents". He said December's summit was designed to raise the EU's relations with Africa to "the highest political level" and discuss such issues as migration, energy, climate change, development and employment. "Until now there has been a relationship of donors and recipients. It would be a mistake for Europe to ignore its neighbour continent," he said. "I expect Britain to be there,"
M Michel said he agreed with Mr Brown's assessment of Mr Mugabe's regime. But speaking in London after talks with Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development, he stressed the summit was between the EU and 50 African nations, not just Zimbabwe.
He also noted that EU rules provide for the temporary suspension of the EU-wide travel bans, such as the one imposed on Mr Mugabe, and that if the Zimbabwean leader were present, he would be subjected to a scrutiny of his country's human rights by fellow delegates.
The travel ban has long hampered efforts to organise a second summit between the European Union and African states, after one attempt collapsed in 2003. The first was held in Cairo in 2000.
It remained unclear whether Mr Mugabe was interested in negotiating a compromise solution. His government yesterday said Mr Brown was "wasting his time" with his threats to boycott the event. "President Mugabe was invited and he is going to Lisbon as Zimbabwe's representative whether Gordon Brown attends or not," said Bright Matonga, the deputy information minister.
"Brown has never been to Zimbabwe and he has never engaged Zimbabwe so he is not the best person to talk about our situation."South African officials privately questioned the timing of Mr Brown's statements. With negotiations in Pretoria between the ruling party and opposition groups poised delicately, British attacks could be "unhelpful" according to one diplomat.