EU-Zimbabwe launch new era in ties

"Today’s meeting lays the foundation for a renewed relationship between the European Union and Zimbabwe," EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel told reporters after talks with Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

"Your new government offers a unique political opportunity to see Zimbabwe re-engage with the international donor community. But in order to kickstart this re-engagement we need clear progress on certain sticking points."

Apart from a resumption of national political dialogue, the EU presidency called for an end to politically-motivated violence and for the security services to come under government control.

It also demanded that the rule of law be strengthened and media freedoms improved, as well as more transparency in the financial system and reforms to the central bank.

Tsvangirai and his rival President Robert Mugabe formed on February 11 a power-sharing government tasked with steering Zimbabwe back to stability after disputed elections last year plunged the country into crisis.

With the shattered economy just turning a corner, Tsvangirai set off on an international tour looking for assistance to help Zimbabwe emerge from years of chaos, which has seen rampant inflation and forced many Zimbabweans to flee.

His welcome abroad has contrasted with the chill towards Mugabe.

Both the EU and the United States maintain a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe, his wife and inner circle in protest at controversial elections and alleged human rights abuses by his government.

"The moment the political process begins to move, we would like to recuperate fully our relation with your country," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said, after the first official EU-Zimbabwe talks since 2002.

Tsvangirai, who has won pledges of humanitarian aid on his trip but not the substantial development assistance he seeks to push the economy forward, said he was satisfied with the EU’s commitment.

"I am actually encouraged by the level of positive support and indicators that have been given to us," he said. "What is important up front, is to establish long-term relationships."

"Financial support will be essential. There is no doubt that Zimbabwe is coming out of a trough and that during this transition we need that support," he said.

"The commitments are there. They are measured. They are phased, and I think it is a good incremental support that we are looking at."

The European Commission usually donates around 90 million euros annually to Zimbabwe through non-governmental organisations. It wants to do the same again this year but channel two thirds of it into stabilising the new government.

In coming weeks, it wants to free up an additional 20 million euros to bolster the government, plus a further nine million euros in food aid, a commission official said.

Aid groups have urged the EU and United States to go beyond emergency relief and send development aid that would allow Zimbabwe to repair broken water and sanitation systems responsible for a deadly cholera outbreak.

Zimbabwe NGOs are concerned that Mugabe might have exploited Tsvangirai’s visit to win more aid, and they want pressure maintained on the veteran strongman and his associates until concrete proof of changes surfaces.

The landmark meeting came as rights watchdog Amnesty International lashed out at Zimbabwe, saying that "persistent and serious" human rights violations continue despite the formation of the unity government four months ago.

"It is worrying that Amnesty members, human rights activists continue to be harrassed," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, standing in for the EU presidency.