EU lifts curbs on aid to Zimbabwe to spur reform

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union lifted curbs on EU aid to Zimbabwe on Monday and held out the prospect of removing sanctions from Zimbabwean officials to encourage political reform – though not from President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle.\r\n

 

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EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels lifted the aid restrictions with immediate effect but said a broader easing of sanctions would depend on a referendum on constitutional changes due this year being “peaceful and credible”.

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The step is part of the West’s strategy of rewarding Zimbabwe’s uneasy coalition government for progress made since a disputed 2008 vote, while keeping up pressure on veteran leader Mugabe to carry out more political, economic and social reforms.

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Citing moves by Zimbabwe’s government of national unity to “improve the freedom and prosperity of the Zimbabwean people”, the ministers said the EU would end its ban on sending development aid directly to the Zimbabwean government. The bloc currently sends about 100 million euros a year in aid to Zimbabwe through non-governmental organisations.

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The bloc will resume direct dealings with the Zimbabwean government under a new EU aid agreement for developing countries due to start in 2014, the ministers said. The change affects only EU aid, not money given directly by EU member states.

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Further easing of EU sanctions on Zimbabwean officials will depend on the holding of a fair referendum on a new constitution, seen as a key precursor to an election expected in 2013, the ministers said. The new constitution would limit the power of the president and strengthen that of parliament.

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A “peaceful and credible constitutional referendum…would justify a suspension of the majority of all EU targeted restrictive measures against individuals and entities,” an EU statement said.

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EU diplomats said there was no immediate prospect of lifting sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle.

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The European Union removed some Zimbabweans from its sanctions list in February, but 112 people and 11 organisations remain affected by asset freezes or travel bans. 

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Mugabe is one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders and has been accused of hanging on to power through vote-rigging. The 88-year-old has denied reports of ill health and says he is fit enough to contest the next presidential election.

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Britain, the former colonial power which regularly clashes with Mugabe, said it had proposed the EU move, which Foreign Secretary William Hague said represented a “step change in the EU’s approach to Zimbabwe”.

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“This approach will demonstrate to reformers across the political spectrum that the EU is serious about responding to concrete progress on the ground,” he said in a statement.