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EU Ministers Talk Tough on Zimbabwe and Plea for Peace in Middle East - 2002-01-29


The European Union has wrapped up another of its monthly foreign ministers' meetings in Brussels with tough talk on Zimbabwe and a plea for Israelis and Palestinians to step back from the brink. The meeting was also the debut for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in his other job as foreign minister.

The EU foreign ministers signaled that they have run out of patience with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the worsening political situation in his country.

The ministers warned Mr. Mugabe and his associates that they will face sanctions unless they quickly put an end to political violence and intimidation against the Zimbabwean government's opponents and the local and international news media.

The sanctions will go into effect if Mr. Mugabe does not let an EU observer mission into his country by next Sunday, if it prevents the international news media from reporting on a presidential election due in March, or if the human rights situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate.

Even if those conditions are met, sanctions will still be imposed if the election itself turns out to be fraudulent.

The push for a tough line against Mr. Mugabe was led by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

"Whether he takes notice or not, I'm not sure. But what I am certain about is that if he does not call off his thugs, allow free and fair elections, allows the international media in, then these sanctions will kick in," he said.

Mr. Straw and other EU leaders are quick to stress that, if they do impose penalties, they will not be sanctions against the Zimbabwean people. The measures are aimed at Mr. Mugabe personally, his family and his entourage and will consist of a freeze on their assets in Europe and a ban on visas for travel in Europe.

Zimbabwe's state-controlled media have called the threat of sanctions part of a British campaign to demonize Zimbabwe.

The EU ministers also took a hard line on Israel, partly because they are worried that the Bush Administration is siding too openly with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his campaign against the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat. The EU says the alternative to the Palestinian Authority, which it fears Israel intends to destroy, is Palestinian anarchy.

Above all, the EU wants Israel to stop specifically targeting the Palestinian Authority every time there is a terrorist attack against Israelis. EU Foreign Relations Commissioner Chris Patten also dismisses Israel's assertion that its destruction of EU-funded infrastructure projects in Palestinian areas arose out of its security concerns.

"I think it is very difficult to understand how destroying health and education facilities, how destroying the forensic laboratory that we built for the Palestinian Authority, how tearing up the runway in Gaza, it's very difficult, I think, for most people to understand what that has to do with Israel's security," he said.

The EU's criticism of Israel, though, was carefully balanced with demands for Mr. Arafat to do more to root out terrorism.

Away from the solemn pronouncements on world issues, the man who was expected to become the media focus of the foreign ministers' meeting turned out to have little to say in public.

After weeks of sparring with his European partners, Italian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to have decided that a low-key approach would be more productive. And on this occasion, he got what he wanted.

The EU accepted his appointment of his right-wing ally Gianfranco Fini as Italy's representative to a convention that will discuss how to reform the union to allow it to accommodate up to 10 new members in the years ahead. Other countries had objected to Mr. Fini because of his neo-Fascist past but now say they are satisfied with his efforts to distance himself from it.

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