ZIMBABWE and the European Union (EU) yesterday kicked off their first formal dialogue in 17 years, which Harare hopes will thaw frosty relations and lead to resumption of direct aid to its battered economy.
BY OBEY MANAYITI
But the southern African nation faces pressure to improve its human rights record and agree to critical political and economic reforms.
Zimbabwe has had a chequered history with the bloc under former President Robert Mugabe’s nearly four-decade rule.
The EU imposed sanctions on some of the country’s leaders and several State-owned firms over alleged human rights abuses.
Mugabe constantly denied the allegations and regularly referred to the EU as colonialists and opined that the sanctions were responsible for Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.
The EU now only maintains the sanctions on Mugabe, his wife Grace and the Zimbabwe Defence Industries, a State-owned arms manufacturer, but has not provided direct aid to Harare since 2002, preferring to channel the funds via local non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies.
At the talks in Harare, Zimbabwe’s delegation is being led by Foreign Affairs permanent secretary James Manzou and the EU by its ambassador to Zimbabwe Timo Olkkonen.
Olkkonen said the discussion focused on investments, human rights, rule of law, democracy and development co-operation.
“Against this background, we are looking forward to discussing and exchanging views on a number of important issues of common interest, ranging from economic development, trade and investment, to climate change and its humanitarian impact, to human rights, democratisation, rule of law and good governance as well as development cooperation, migration and regional and international co-operation,” he said.
Olkkonen emphasised that the dialogue platform must be made on equal footing and discussions must be frank through free exchange of views.
“The government of Zimbabwe has been clear that significant political and economic reforms are necessary for the benefit of its people. The EU is there to support Zimbabwe move ahead with its reform agenda. In this, we want to be a constructive, credible and transparent partner,” he said.
Manzou said he was convinced that a strong foundation for frank discussions on all issues had been laid.
He added that in their closed-door engagements, they should never be afraid of tackling hard issues as they endeavour to build bridges and find a common ground on sticky matters.
“This event, that brings us together, marks another milestone in the government’s re-engagement efforts and, indeed, in the strengthening of relations between Zimbabwe and the European Union,” Manzou said.
“As you are all aware, re-engagement, and particularly re-engagement with the European Union, is one of the foreign policy priorities of the government of Zimbabwe.”
Manzou, who was accompanied by other permanent secretaries from various ministries such as Lands, Justice and Finance, said the country was already making strides on some of the issues of concern.
“As we will discuss today and in the future, the government is already making significant strides in political and economic reforms that are key to creating a conducive environment for business and more importantly to improving the lives of the people of Zimbabwe,” he said.
“Through this formal dialogue, we at the officials level have been given the task to come together as equal partners and jointly find ways of strengthening relations between Zimbabwe and the European Union.”
Various ambassadors from EU member countries, among them France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Ireland and Belgium, are participating in the discussions.
Shunned by the West and international lenders, Zimbabwe is struggling to deal with its worst economic crisis in a decade.