A senior EU official has suggested Zimbabwe be represented at a long-delayed EU-Africa summit at lower level than President Robert Mugabe to resolve objections some EU states have about sharing a table with him.

Other EU officials said reaching a compromise to allow the summit to go ahead as planned in December could be difficult given broad African support for the presence of Mugabe, whom the West and rights groups accuse of human rights violations.

In an interview, European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner suggested “a high-ranking government minister, like the foreign minister” could attend the summit and represent Zimbabwe.

“I understand that the British naturally have a big problem (over this issue) but we should not let our political relationship with Africa fall apart because of Mugabe,” she told the German daily Financial Times Deutschland.

Summit plans have been on hold since 2003 as Britain and several other EU states have refused to attend if Mugabe did.

Portugal, current holder of the EU presidency, has been seeking a compromise.

The European Union and Southeast Asian countries resolved a similar problem over military-ruled Myanmar when it was agreed that the country would attend summits at a lower level.

However South Africa and other African states are expected to insist Mugabe be allowed to attend the EU-Africa meeting.

“Almost all Africans want Mugabe to be present,” an EU official said. “The Africans are really making this an issue. It could be difficult to sort this out.”

A spokeswoman for Portugal’s foreign ministry said no invitations had yet been sent. Portuguese officials have said privately one had been extended to the African Union, which would then decide who to invite.

A spokesman for the EU’s executive Commission said there were differences among the 27 EU states as to what level of invitation should be sent to Zimbabwe.

EU officials said it was unclear whether a compromise could be reached.

Diplomats have said Britain would not veto a summit over an invitation to Mugabe, but analysts said it would be impossible for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to attend if the Zimbabwean president did so.

European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj said there was increasing competition for influence in Africa.

“In the last three years China has held three summits with Africa, and very business-minded summits with a lot of concrete outcomes. Our main concern is to hold the summit in December without any delay,” he said.

Mugabe blames Western sanctions for hyperinflation, food shortages and an economic crisis. Critics say Mugabe has destroyed the economy with his policy of farm seizures. (Reuters)