The European Union's decision to impose sanctions on the Zimbabwe government of President Robert Mugabe came weeks after the 15-nation bloc first began considering the idea. Diplomats in Brussels say the time lapse between announcing the sanctions and implementing them may have given Mr. Mugabe the opportunity to lessen their impact.
After wavering for weeks, the EU voted this week to bar Mr. Mugabe, 19 of his closest associates, and their families from traveling to EU countries. It also decided to freeze any assets held by Zimbabwe's top leadership in EU nations. And it prohibited EU member nations from selling arms or equipment it said could be used for internal repression in Zimbabwe.
The move followed Harare's expulsion last Saturday of Pierre Schori, the Swedish head of the EU's observer mission to Zimbabwe. President Mugabe is facing his toughest challenge at the polls in his more than two decade rule next month, and EU diplomats believe he is determined to hold on to power. As far as the EU is concerned, Mr. Schori's expulsion leaves doubt that the election will be free or fair.
Mr. Mugabe refused to accredit observers from six EU nations, including Britain, Germany and Sweden, saying they were biased in favor of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The EU on Tuesday pulled out the 30 or so election monitors that Harare did accredit.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw succeeded in convincing his fellow foreign ministers that the EU's credibility was at stake and that Mr. Schori's expulsion merited a strong response by the bloc. "It's not possible for these observers to do their job, so that's why we agreed unanimously on a recommendation from me that sanctions should apply," he said. "But these are personal sanctions, not economic sanctions."
That means, says Mr. Straw, that the sanctions are aimed squarely at Mr. Mugabe and his cronies and not at the Zimbabwean people. There will be no reduction of EU humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe.
Last month, the EU warned Mr. Mugabe that, if he failed to allow election observers to do their job, if he refused to give the international media access to Zimbabwe to report on the campaign and the election, or if government harassment of the opposition continued, it would impose sanctions.
Diplomats at the EU said some foreign ministers were willing to bend over backward to keep observers in Zimbabwe in the hope that their presence would contribute to a lessening of intimidation against the opposition.
But with several foreign reporters or news organizations banned from the country and the opposition finding it more and more difficult to campaign, the expulsion of Mr. Schori was the last straw.
EU Foreign Relations Commissioner Chris Patten says the bloc had no alternative but to withdraw its monitors and impose sanctions. "The problem we had was whether or not we could run an election observation team adequately," he said. "And we were getting more and more interference from Mr. Mugabe and the interior ministry and the immigration ministry and so on. So we weren't able to run a credible operation."
Still, some diplomats at EU headquarters argue that the sanctions will have lost much of their effect because Mr. Mugabe and his associates have had time since last month to move their assets out of EU countries to safer havens, such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. On the other hand, say the diplomats, children of the leaders, many of whom study at EU universities, will now find their visas revoked.
There is also a debate about whether the EU election observers would have been effective anyway. Vincent Magombe, who runs a news service called Africa Inform International out of London, is one analyst who thinks they would not have made a difference. "Even if these observers had remained there, they wouldn't have achieved much, because much of the cheating and intimidation is happening in the villages, very far from the cities," he said. "Zimbabwe people know that the elections are not going to be fair and free. So I think what the world should be thinking about is, post-elections, what they can do if Mugabe cheats and intimidates his people."
Mr. Magombe advocates international isolation of Zimbabwe if, as he expects, Mr. Mugabe rigs the elections.
The last word comes from the opposition, which claims it has little access to the media, voters' lists are suspect and the country's electoral commission is controlled by the government. Its spokesman, Tendai Biti, says international observers could not have done much to remedy those irregularities. So, in his words, the movement will have to battle it out just as it did in parliamentary elections in the year 2000 that the EU found to have been flawed in favor of Mr. Mugabe.