Home » Governance » EU, Zim Relations On the Mend [interview]

Relations between Zimbabwe and the European Union have been thawing gradually over the past few years with the latter easing sanctions it imposed in 2002, although Harare believes that sanctions should go in toto. Critically, though, the EU is sitting down soon to review the measures and has also hinted at loosening purse strings directly to Government.

Our Political Editor Tichaona Zindoganbsp talks to the EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe Mr Philippe Van Dammenbsp . . .

Thank you acquiescing to this interview and granting us your time. So, if we could start, what is the relationship between the European Union and Zimbabwe at the moment?

Well, I think we try to be as constructive in our relations as possible, as you know our relationship has been topical for the last 10, 12 years but let’s not forget that the EU and its member states has always remained by far the biggest donors to this country. We have always remained one of the most important trading partners of this country and we have always been willing to deepen our relations with Zimbabwe. So, I think we have moved significantly in recent years in terms of further engagement with the Government of Zimbabwe and my mandate is clearly to continue in that path.

The biggest talking point has been sanctions that the EU and other western countries have imposed on Zimbabwe. The EU has been lifting the sanctions in a calibrated manner. The question is, why don’t you totally lift these sanctions as demanded by Zimbabwe, SADC and the African Union among others? What does Zimbabwe have to do, that it has not done already?

You know I am always saying to people I am not in speculative politics so I cannot answer on behalf of others who have to take the decisions at another level and another moment. The decisions around restrictive measures have to be taken by the Council of the European Union over the next week or so I leave it to the Council of the European Union over the next weeks to clarify the position.

Maybe if we could take it further. What is the justification for that calibration? Of course you told me that the council has to meet, but from your own assessment, you are the Head of Delegation here, what justifies this piecemeal removal of sanctions?

I am not speaking on behalf of my person I am speaking on behalf my institution. Again it’s to the institution to define its position. But what we have been saying since my arrival and that’s also my mandate, is that as we need to find ways to make mutual confidence building measures so that trust on both sides comes back. Over the last couple of years that type of trust-building measures have been taken on our side and on the Government’s side as well. We have had a referendum and constitution which has been adopted so stern commitments have been made by the Government in the economic and political reform agendas. We have, as you said rightly, gradually lifted some of the restrictive measures on individuals and entities. We also lifted entirely our appropriate measures on co-operation last year with the lifting of Article 96: Appropriate Measures, which allows us now to engage fully with Government on the co-operation issues. So we are in a process and that process has to continue.

Ok, just a clarification here: over the past week we heard some reports, to the effect that the EU had suspended for a year, measures against President Mugabe while he chairs the African Union but of course we heard other reports stating the contrary, something to the contrary. Can you just clarify?

Well, yes, I think there has been a misunderstanding of the answer given by the spokesperson of the European Commission to a question from a journalist in Brussels this week. What she was referring to, is general international diplomatic practice in terms of travel bans which basically says, and that’s also reflected in the Council decisions of the European Union, that whenever a person who falls under travel bans, restrictive measures has to travel be it for humanitarian reasons or, I guess with the President of the Republic, when he has to travel on behalf of SADC or the African Union or even if and when he has to travel as President of Zimbabwe and join international events, there is an exception for travel within the framework of international events which are considered important and to the interest of the international community. The best illustration is what happened last year with (President) Mugabe travelling to Vienna for the Summit on Landlocked Countries. He obtained the waiver as President of Zimbabwe. So, for sure, as Chair of SADC or as Chair of the African Union, he can obtain waivers whenever he needs to join an international meeting on behalf of the institutions he is representing.

Ok thank you. But just speaking of that, President Mugabe is now the SADC Chairman, the African Union Chairman. How do you relate to that development? Here is one person who may not be liked very much in the West but who Africa is elevating, or is holding to some esteem. How do you relate to that politically?

The EU has sound and consistently good relations with SADC and consistently good relations with the African Union so these relations will continue. At a certain stage I have seen some newspapers claiming that the West was trying to blackmail the African Union threatening to cut off its financial support. This is complete nonsense. We are not intervening in the internal election processes of external institutions, regional institutions and we are not linking support to these regional organisations to whoever they elect as chair. This is the internal business of these regional organisations and we don’t have to comment on that.

OK. Then there is this interesting part now. Britain the former colonial power over Zimbabwe. How much influence does it exert in the decisions of the European Union? Does it overbear? What kind of relationship or what kind of say does Britain have where Zimbabwe is concerned?

Britain has not more say than any other country. We are 28 countries in the EU. The Council decisions are taken by unanimity, which means that whatever is decided is fully endorsed by the 28 member states. So each Council decision, whatever subject, may raise discussions but at the end we come to a consensual position. So every country has an equal weight. Of course there may be some countries which for some reason or another have a more in depth knowledge of a specific topic than another. I mean when the Council discusses the Democratic Republic of Congo they will listen to what the Belgians have to say because they were there for a long time, they have inside knowledge . . . that’s a normal practice, so some people may have more to say than others on certain subjects but we remain a collective exercise where everybody has the same say.

So if I can catch you there, Britain has more to say over Zimbabwe, Zimbabwean issues?

No, I haven’t said that. I am saying, we have countries like the Nordic countries that supported the liberation struggle here in this country. They also have in-depth knowledge. So they may have an interesting contribution to make in the discussions as well. While I can imagine that Malta may have maybe a little bit less to say on Zimbabwe because they don’t have that involvement. So it’s all countries depending on the involvement on specific issues have more or less things to say but each country has equal weighting because the council decides at unanimity.

Then economic issues. We understand Europe is not in a good position economically or generally economic issues tend to influence decisions of countries and blocs. How far do economic considerations impact on your decisions? For example, Belgium, we understand it was quite not happy about the impact of sanctions on diamond trade. How much of a role does economics play in the decision of the EU in relation to Zimbabwe and Africa in general?

I think the question is preferably to be split up.

If the question is related to restrictive measures I would say it has no linkage at all between economic interests and restrictive measures. The restrictive measures are based on what the EU thinks is a violation of what we call the essential elements of Cotonou Agreements which is are partnership agreements signed by Zimbabwe and 77 other ACP, African Caribbean Pacific countries and the EU. So the restrictive measures are strictly related to the violation of the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law and there are no economic considerations coming in. Of course we all have economic interests and like I said we are one of the major trading partners of Zimbabwe and of course we are willing to develop these relationships. The issue of Belgium and the diamond sector is something which is not directly related to economic interests per se but also to governance. The position has always been that selling diamonds in internationally respected diamond centre, which applies very rigid rules on the origin of diamonds and fully subscribed to the Kimberley Process gives more guarantees on transparency and accountability than selling it in other places which, maybe, less sternly adhere to these international practices. And I think the experience of Zimbabwe proves that indeed by selling it that way they get a better price for the diamonds. But again our political agenda is not dictated by economic considerations.

And China has recorded a growth in trade with Zimbabwe and Africa. As the EU we might consider you our traditional trading partners. Do you not feel intimidated, somewhat concerned, about that increase in trade between Zimbabwe and China?

Why should there be any need for concern? We welcome new trading partners, new investing partners for Zimbabwe, for Africa, for whatever country in the world because you know, the Cotonou Agreements which we signed have two basic agreements: one is poverty alleviation and the second one is to help the countries of the South gradually integrate into the world economy. Because we think that by opening up the economy and by integrating the world economy we serve these countries in their objective of sustainable economic growth and poverty alleviation because trade is a very g tool towards sustainable economic growth and development. So we promote trade from all sides, north, south, east, west. We don’t care. As long, and that’s important of course, as long as the country concerned and Zimbabwe, as a member of the World Trade Organisation, respect the rules of the game. Which means no discriminatory trade and that some countries are not treated differently compared to others and certainly that the trade complies with international standards and norms so that indeed we have a level playing field with trade that is sustainable. It doesn’t make sense to promote short term trade which destroys the environment and which compromises the long term development of a country for example. I am now speaking in general terms. So we welcome all trading partners to this country. We are not intimidated. I think we all have our competitive aantages and I don’t see why you would be afraid of competitors. The more the country prospers thanks to trade, the larger the market and the larger the potential for all partners.

But you alluded to the rules of the game and you also alluded to level playing field. But the EU or the Western world generally have been seen to attach a lot of strings around trade and aid. Do you foresee a situation where you loosen the strings that you attach to trade attach to aid?

We don’t attach any strings to trade except the normal international rules and laws. Of course the EU has its internal norms and standards and these are applicable to all countries. And I am not sure what you are referring in terms of conditions to aid. We lifted our Article 96 measures on the 1st of November last year which means that while up to the 1st of November 2014, our aid was mainly channelled through non-governmental organisations, international organisation like UNICEF, FAO, UNDP and so forth plus civil society organisations, now we can again engage fully with the government and there are no specific constraints attached to it. Of course we are in a policy dialogue with the government so we are defining jointly what can be the priorities and that’s not a condition, it’s just political dialogue which is also the desire of the government through Zim-ASSET to engage with all stakeholders be it private sector, civil society or donor community.

Ok. You indicated earlier that you were channelling aid through NGOs, FAO, and so on. But one thing that the former ambassador talked about was the antagonistic relationship between the local NGO sector, or the civil society and the government. What is your assessment of that and what do you foresee during your tenure?

I think every stakeholder and I have been mentioning that every stakeholder in society has its role to play. The private sector, the NGO, the Government and the donor community. We all have a complimentary role in boosting sustainable economic development in this country. And what we are aiming at is to create and maintain good relations with all the stakeholders in view of these stakeholders playing a constructive role in society, in constructive complementarity. And I think that is also the philosophy of the government when they organised the Zim-ASSET conference in Nyanga in September last year, they invited all the stakeholders including the civil society because they realised and recognised that each of these stakeholders has a role to play and that is the philosophy in which we want to work. So that’s it I don’t have to comment on the quality of each of these stakeholders. I mean I am not commenting on the quality of the government, I am not commenting of the quality of the private sector or on civil society. They all have to play their role and we have to the extent possible to accompany all these stakeholders and make it possible to play their respective roles.

Ok thank you. What can we expect from the relations between the European Union and Zimbabwe and we understand that you are going to be sitting down to review sanctions pretty soon. Can you just fill us in on that?

No, as I said I am not speculative politics so we will wait for council conclusions between now and a couple of weeks’ time. It is for the council to explain the sense of that decision.

Source : The Herald

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