Europe is poised to suspend its multi-million-pound aid package to Zimbabwe amid mounting concern over the country's civil rights record and new anger over the violence in Harare on Saturday.
As Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, headed for a confrontation with Britain at today's EU-Africa summit in Cairo, officials in Brussels have already asked the 15 EU member states whether to freeze around 140m euros (£85m) of aid and trade concessions.
European diplomats in Harare are preparing a report on the political situation in Zimbabwe and EU foreign ministers are likely to discuss the suspension of financial help at their next meeting, on 10 April. "The ball has started rolling," one official said, "although it has not yet reached its destination." An already tense stand-off between Zimbabwe and Britain has been worsened by the scenes in Harare on Saturday, when police appeared to allow vicious attacks on pro-opposition protesters by hardline supporters of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.
In Cairo yesterday Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, raised the Zimbabwe issue at a session of EU foreign ministers and urged the EU to send monitors to observe the elections there. Afterwards, Mr Cook said the EU should insist on "the right of peaceful demonstrators to carry out their peaceful demonstrations".
"There should be free and fair elections and they should be properly monitored and observed," he added, reflecting concern at Mr Mugabe's decision to delay the country's parliamentary elections from mid-April until May.
Peter Hain, the British Foreign Office Minister responsible for Africa, who described the violence as "thuggery orchestrated from on high", said: "There is clear evidence of racist, anti-white attacks which is especially disturbing coming from a party which came to power 20 years ago on a tide of anti-racist sentiment."
Britain has not decided whether to back the moves to suspend EU aid to Zimbabwe, although it expects the issue to be on the agenda when foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg on 10 April. "It is for the EU presidency [Portugal] to decide," said a British source yesterday. "But it would be reasonable for this to be one of the aspects of relations with Zimbabwe to be discussed on 10 April." He said there needed to be a discussion on whether this would be an effective sanction against Zimbabwe's rulers or whether it would hit the poorest section of the country's population.
Last week the requisite call from Africa for the suspension of non-vital aid to Zimbabwe was made at a meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states and the EU. The resolution cited Zimbabwe's costly involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the continuing occupation of white-owned farms and the country's breach of the of the Vienna Convention when it opened a British diplomatic consignment last month.
Harare gets millions of euros of assistance from Europe under the LomÃ© process, a comprehensive trade and aid accord. Article 5 requires the respect of the rule of law and good governance to qualify. Under article 366, Europe can start discussions about freezing a country's entitlement on the basis of a breach of article 5.
Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have already frozen loans to Zimbabwe as a result of its poor economic management and its involvement in the DRC war.
Harare has been allocated a tranche of 110m euros of aid for health, education and agriculture, of which 48m euros has been released. In addition, around 80m euros of export subsidies are available over the next two years.
Several northern European countries have expressed concerns about Zimbabwe, and the Dutch ambassador to Harare has been asked to provide a report for The Hague.
The Foreign Office has so far resisted calls for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, arguing its abuses are not grave enough to merit such action.