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EU, S.Africa seek to move past disputes

Leaders of the European Union and South Africa on Thursday ended summit talks that sought to bridge differences over Libya and Zimbabwe and reaffirmed their goal of reaching a regional trade deal.

Despite a sometimes bitter divide over the conflict in Libya, EU President Herman Van Rompuy declared that both sides were ready to put the past behind them.

“Even if we had differences in the past, I think we share the future,” he said after the summit, held in the safari paradise of Kruger National Park, famous for its herds of elephants and other big game.

“We both agree that the future of Libya belongs to the Libyan people.”

But their “past” differences are dogging the present, with South African President Jacob Zuma refusing to recognise the National Transitional Council in Libya, even as the leaders of Britain and France visited the new leadership in Tripoli on Thursday.

“The NTC is the legitimate representative of the Libyan people for the time being,” Van Rompuy said. “They have to broaden as soon as possible the government to make it more representative of the Libyan people.”

Zuma has fiercely criticised the NATO bombing campaign that helped the rebels’ military victory over Moamer Kadhafi, and has insisted on an “inclusive” government that includes all parties.

Differences over Zimbabwe remained as well, although both sides agree on the need to end the political crisis in Harare.

Zuma has urged the West to lift its asset freeze and travel ban on Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle, but the EU wasn’t ready for new concessions.

“We lifted already some restricted measures a few months ago,” Van Rompuy said. “A credible road map for elections is of utmost importance. It will facilitate for the EU a review of restricted measures.”

South Africa brokered the accord that led to a unity government in 2009 between Mugabe and his archrival Morgan Tsvangirai, but the two parties have yet to agree on a plan for new elections, possibly next year.

Zuma avoided any public show of disagreement.

“On global and regional issues, we discussed developments in Africa, including north and South Sudan, Zimbabwe and the Arab spring. On the whole we are very happy with the content and depth of discussions,” Zuma told reporters.

“Indeed, today’s meeting has helped to further consolidate our continued dialogue and engagement with the European Union.”

But the two sides did appear willing to revive long-stalled trade talks between the EU and seven southern African nations.

“There is an agreement that we need to find an agreement. We are both very optimistic that the negotiations are going to go forward,” Zuma said.

A source close to the talks said that they had cleared the main hurdles to concluding a trade deal, though no signing date could be set.

Despite South Africa’s economic might on the continent, it remains a major beneficiary of European aid, notably a 126-million-euro grant to the health ministry to bolster the public health system, especially in the fight against AIDS and tuberculosis.

During 2007-2013, South Africa is set to receive 980 million euros from the EU, or an average of 140 million euros a year.