RELATIONS between Zimbabwe and the European Union (EU) have, to all intents and purposes, normalised despite the fact that travel to the bloc is still restricted for President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace.
But indications are these sanctions may be removed in the next review due in November.
The European bloc imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in February 2002, after the Zimbabwe government embarked on the land reform programme that dispossessed more than 4,000 white commercial farmers of their land and gave it to the majority blacks.
The EU condemned the human rights abuses that accompanied th e process. The sanctions meant Zimbabwe could no longer access EU budgetary support for projects.
But the head of the EU delegation to Harare, Aldo Dell’Ariccia last month said the “last step” would be taken this year to normalise relations.
“The European Council has unanimously decided that considering that there are no major disruptions to the democratic process in Zimbabwe, on 1 November 2014 the restrictive measures will be completely removed,” he said.
He was addressing delegates to the 11th European Development Fund programming exercise consultative workshop on May 28.
Only last week, Mr Dell’ Ariccia seemed to endorse Mr Mugabe’s victory in harmonised elections last July, when he said there was no leadership crisis in Zimbabwe and that Mr Mugabe was fully in control.
“Luckily we don’t have a leadership crisis in this country … if we had a leadership crisis it will be chaos,” he told Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an umbrella civil society organisation.
Since the turn of the millennium, the EU has consistently condemned Mr Mugabe’s electoral victories as fraudulent, openly supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai and civil society.
Mr Dell’Ariccia’s remarks are seen across the political divide as the clearest sign yet of an attempt at rapprochement.
He also encouraged civil society to change its approach towards the government, saying it remained stuck in the past.
“I think that civil society has a role to play but I have the impression that you are a little bit anchored to the past. If you start catching the flare of the time, the trend, there is an opening. Play a constructive role,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s opposition politics seem to have suffered a mortal blow after Mr Mugabe’s resounding victory last July.
Mr Tsvangirai is fighting for his political survival.
The MDC splintered in 2005 when the then secretary-general Welshman Ncube broke away. It recently split again, when a faction led by former secretary-general Tendai Biti emerged calling for leadership renewal.
It is unlikely to regroup in time to pose any serious threat to the ruling Zanu (PF)’ s chances in the 2018 elections.
European diplomats in Harare have turned against Mr Tsvangirai after the recent split.
They accuse him of failing in his mission to bring change to Zimbabwe and have begun withholding the financial support he has depended on since the emergence of his party in 1999.
They have also accused him of using the same undemocratic tactics, such as violence, that Mr Mugabe’s regime has always used to suppress dissent.
With a supine opposition and emasculated civil society, the EU seems to have changed tack.
Instead of using the stick, it is now using the carrot, hence moves to get rid of sanctions and endorse Mr Mugabe.
The China factor has also played a huge part in softening the EU stance towards Harare.
China has continued to invest in Zimbabwe despite its appalling human rights record.
The EU has seen this as a great threat to its own future not only in Zimbabwe, but in the Southern African region as a whole, which explains the scramble to mend fences.
The European Investment Bank (EIB) was recently in the country and is expected to begin injecting working capital into the private sector, which has been crippled by a liquidity crunch that has resulted in a serious disinflation which is likely to end in a deflation.
The injection of money in the private sector, therefore, is seen to be alleviating the economic crisis and thereby softening Mr Mugabe’s combative approach to tackling the EU.
Mr Dell’Ariccia was quoted this week as stressing the importance of the private sector as a conduit for European investment. The EIB would explore ways of providing financial support to the private sector indirectly, through commercial banks or directly to certain investors for bigger investments, he said.