Diplomats at the European Union's headquarters in Brussels say EU foreign ministers will probably avoid imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe when they meet next Monday, because they fear such a measure will play into the hands of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
The EU has expressed concern that Mr. Mugabe wants to rig elections in March. But the EU appears to want to wait and see what happens in the African country in the run-up to the poll.
EU diplomats say the 15-nation bloc wants to keep up pressure on Mr. Mugabe, who is facing the biggest challenge to his 22-year-rule in the March presidential election. But it is reluctant to impose sanctions just now.
A Spanish diplomat, who asked reporters not to quote him by name, has said any such move at this juncture would allow Mr. Mugabe to step up harassment of his political opponents and the embattled news media in his country.
The diplomat, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said one possible alternative is to declare sanctions against Zimbabwe, but postpone their implementation.
A British diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said imposing sanctions now would be impractical.
Britain has been the most vociferous opponent within the EU of Mr. Mugabe's rule. This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Mr. Mugabe a disgrace to his country and said Britain would seek Zimbabwe's expulsion from the Commonwealth.
Still, the British diplomat in Brussels said EU sanctions could lead to Mr. Mugabe's barring of independent election monitors. And that, the diplomat said, could discourage many Zimbabweans from voting, and hand Mr. Mugabe the election victory that the EU hopes he will not get.
The Spanish diplomat said the EU is especially interested in getting election observers into Zimbabwe. He said the bloc also wants foreign and Zimbabwean media to be able to report on the election campaign, without interference from the Mugabe government.
The European Parliament, human rights groups and the Zimbabwean opposition have been putting pressure on EU governments to impose so-called "smart sanctions" on the Zimbabwean leader, his family and their associates. These would include a freeze on their overseas assets and a ban on their travel to Europe.
There have also been calls for the EU to suspend its $115 million in development aid to Zimbabwe, but officials in Brussels are concerned any such move would hurt the country's poor.