Zimbabwe faced the near certainty of EU sanctions yesterday after failing to give assurances on press freedom, or to say how international observers will be able to monitor the presidential elections.
A letter from the Zimbabwean government was dismissed by diplomats as vague and insubstantial, raising the prospect that European foreign ministers will impose targeted sanctions – such as visa bans and a freeze on overseas assets – on senior government figures next Monday.
Zimbabwe was given a last chance to avoid confrontation during talks in Brussels 10 days ago. With growing cynicism about its promises, Harare was asked to show how it intends to guarantee press freedom, and to detail a timetable for the invitation of overseas observers. Zimbabwe's parliament is expected to ram through a media Bill today which effectively stamps out the free press.
Yesterday's letter, from the Zimbabwean Foreign Minister, Stan Mudenge, stuck to generalities, arguing that "the government is inviting national, regional and international election observers", and that it "reaffirms its practice of allowing journalists, both national and international, to cover important national events, including elections".
Glenys Kinnock, the Labour MEP, described the response as "totally inadequate", adding: "This four-page letter is further evidence that the government of Zimbabwe has no intention of meeting the two most important criteria. They have failed to undertake that violence and intimidation must end, and a time-scale for the entry of election observers should have been clearly given." A diplomat added: "The letter does not have the detail we want, and we will have to consider the next steps, such as smart sanctions."
Mr Mudenge's letter also included some of the aggressive rhetoric that marked his speech in Brussels 10 days ago. He argued: "We believe that 'demanding' or 'insisting' on the sending of European Union observers to observe our presidential election is not consistent with the spirit of the Cotonou Agreement [which governs relations between the EU and a bloc of developing nations].
There was also an attack on EU countries, including Britain, which Zimbabwe said has "funded opposition parties" in what it described as "blatant interference in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe".