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Tensions of Interim Trade Agreements Weigh on Africa-Europe Summit

African and European leaders are in Portugal to forge a more balanced relationship between the two continents and one of the major topics of discussion is trade. But the trade talks have been soured by tensions over interim deals between the European Union and some African countries. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from Lisbon.

During their summit in Lisbon, African and European Union leaders plan to sign a plan of action to boost trade between their countries.

Europe historically has been Africa's largest trading partner with trade last year reaching some $300 billion. But Europe feels this relationship has stagnated in recent years and is being challenged by China, India and Brazil.

The European Union since 1975 has exempted developing nations from many import tariffs. But these agreements were ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization, obliging the EU to negotiate new interim accords called Economic Partnership Agreements.

The EU ambassador to Uganda, Vincent de Visscher, explains that the new accords are designed to make the developing nations of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, known as the ACP, more competitive.

"Realizing that the trade flow between the ACP and the European Union was slowly going down, we said what about competitiveness, is it the time to increase competitiveness in the ACP countries?," he said.

He pointed out that without the interim agreements, tariffs next year would rise on many African exports. A dozen countries have decided to sign the new accords but most have refused.

An international trade expert with South Africa's Cape Town University, Mills Soko, says the new accords are causing unease.

"There are concerns that if this process of equalizing these relations is not managed properly it could have negative effects for African economies," said Soko.

Critics say the new accords will flood African markets with cheaper goods while at the same time lowering government revenues from customs tariffs.

Soko says African governments also object to the EU's negotiating tactics.

"The EU is being accused of using backroom tactics to place on the agenda issues that the WTO has not resolved yet," said Soko. "And one of those issues relates to services."

Developing nations say that the EU could have asked for an extension from the WTO.

This has led some analysts to wonder whether the talk of a new, more equal relationship between Africa and Europe is indeed sincere.