Summit to challenge Blair

Saturday, July 2, 2005

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- This picturesque medieval city is bracing for pro-tests by tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding urgent action on aid to Africa and climate change by leaders of the world's richest nations.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, chairman of the Group of Eight summit, is largely on the protesters' side -- but he will also be playing host to close ally President Bush.

Blair has been playing down his chances of success at the three-day summit, which opens Wednesday. But his decision to put Africa and the environment at the top of the agenda has generated enormous expectation among activists who have waited for years to see their causes at center stage.

A breakthrough on either issue could secure a lasting legacy for Blair, who in May won a third term in office.

But with hopes so high among demonstrators in Scotland, even success could be deemed failure. Coming up empty-handed would be a major setback -- particularly if Bush proves an obstacle to international consensus.

"If he appears to have been rebuffed by Bush, that would be hurtful," said Bill Jones, a political analyst at Manchester University. "It would emphasize the one-sided nature of the relationship."

The protesters streaming into Edinburgh are among those who voiced the fiercest opposition to the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

If Blair can count on some goodwill because of his championing of the activists' causes, a failure to win agreements on Africa and the environment could spill into a violent explosion of anger.

Some demonstrators expressed little hope Friday for a positive outcome.

"It seems completely ridiculous to trust the people that sit on top of a system that has been messing up the world for centuries," said Julian Schmidt, a student from Germany and member of the anti-globalization group Dissent.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who received an honorary fellowship Friday at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, urged the G8 leaders to help the developing world. "The poor need you. Don't forget them," Annan said. "I hope the focus on Africa and the fight against poverty will help move our concerns forward."

Blair calls Africa "a scar on the conscience of the world." He has already secured G8 agreement to wipe out $40 billion worth of debt owed by 18 of the world's poorest countries.

His Africa Commission report also calls for fair trade and an extra $25 billion a year in international aid for the continent by 2010, and a further $25 billion annually up to 2015.

On climate change, Blair wants an agreement among G8 leaders on the scientific threat posed by global warming and the urgent need for action. On Wednesday, he described global warming as "probably the most serious threat we face."

He also wants greater research in green technology, and to draw emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Mexico into the debate.

Prospects of agreement when the leaders of the United States, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan join Blair in Gleneagles, Scotland, remain uncertain.

British government officials have stressed the agenda is ambitious and negotiations will be lenghty. In an interview with The Associated Press, Blair stressed his differences with Bush, who has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change because he says it would damage the U.S. economy.

"There is a disagreement over the Kyoto Treaty and you are not going to resolve that disagreement," said Blair.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has also tried to dampen expectations.

"It won't be everything the people expect, but it will be a lot more than would have been achieved without the summit and the British placing it on the agenda," Straw told reporters.

A worldwide campaign is keeping up the pressure.

On Friday, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty group were draping white bands -- the symbol of the campaign -- over landmarks across the world, including the Sydney Harbor Bridge, London's St. Paul's Cathedral and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Some 150,000 people are expected to march through Edinburgh on Saturday, according to rally organizers Make Poverty History.

Musician Bob Geldof, who masterminded the Live Aid concerts 20 years ago, has again rallied rock stars to the anti-poverty drive. A series of "Live 8" concerts will take place Saturday in cities across the world, including London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Philadelphia, Moscow, Toronto, Johannesburg and Tokyo.

The campaign will culminate Wednesday, the opening day of the G8 summit. Geldof has called for a million people to take a "Long Walk to Justice" and converge on the Scottish capital, where rock acts including Texas and Annie Lennox will take part in a concert titled "Edinburgh 50,000: The Final Push." Organizers say the figure refers to the number of people who will die that day from extreme poverty.

"The pressure on the British government is going to be so intense," said Oliver Buston of DATA, the campaign group founded by U2 singer Bono. "The Make Poverty History campaign is huge and Live 8 will only add to that."

Blair has set a high threshold for a successful summit.

"On Africa, it would be a major commitment to tackling the multiplicity of problems for Africa, not just an uplift in aid, a strong signal on trade, conflict resolution, the killer diseases," he told AP.

He made clear he is aware of the difficulties of tacking poverty and climate change. "You couldn't choose two more difficult issues -- but then what is the point in being in politics unless you try and resolve the difficult issues?"

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