What does the Mugabe affair say about AU-EU relations?

Views on the questions kindly put forward by Charlotte Lloyd - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

To what extent is Portugal's firm support of Mugabe's right to attendthe EU-AU summit tainted by its relationship with its former coloniesin the SADC. In other words, are Angola and Mozambique giving Portugal ulterior motives to advocate for Mugabe's attendance, or is Portugal actually using the EU presidency to further broader EU aims?

Gordon Brown is nowadays simply extending Blair's stance on Zimbabwe. If you recall, Tony Blair did not participate in the summit in Egypt. Asking why Britain has had this stance should be the starting point for any reflection on the matter since this is the "odd one out" position within the EU. The question can therefore also be adapted to suit the British side: To what extent is Britain's rejection of Mugabe's right to attend the EU-AU summit tainted by its relationship with its former colonies in the SADC.

Portugal through the CPLP and various bilateral accords holds, or at least tries to hold, a special relationship with Lusophone Africa. My belief however is, in regards to the brief six month presidency of the European Union, that Portugal's priority is the signing of the new EU treaty not the AU-EU summit. This has meant that the amount of political capital and strategizing for the summit has not been optimal.

My personal belief is that Portugal is made its decision very naturally, and has not put extensive "thought" into its decision to defend Mugabe's attendance. A quick reading of the diplomatic reality in Africa shows that it is unthinkable from an African perspective for Mugabe not to attend. His reputation and political capital accumulated during the days of independence are still great among African heads of state and,although sometimes hard to understand, cannot be underestimated. Mugabe not attending would change little, Mugabe attending probably won't change anything but can at least be a chance for some dialogue which does not mean supporting the abuses of his police state. As a rule of thumb, when it comes to sensitive regional security situations, clear-headed diplomatic engagement is better than no engagement at all- just take the example of the recent developments in the US-North Korea affair. In addition, Africa is turning eastwards (China and India) for economic and political exchanges and is slowly becoming less dependant on EU. This diplomatic decoupling is becoming more and more evident and has also weighted on the AU insistence on the presence of Mugabe.

Has the EU been playing the role of the "honest-broker" or is it exercising an undercurrent of colonialism?

I believe the EU wants to be a key partner with Africa and is trying to be as honest of a broker as its economic interests allow it to. However, this will not change and is not inherently bad in itself if creative and honest ways of striking deals that benefit both actors come about.

After so many decades in which the EU engaged with Africa and little improved in the continent, things are suddenly looking up but I think China, Brasil, India and Africa itself have more to do with that than the EU. This without discarding the importance of the waving of debt forgiveness that happened recently. Africa been thriving economically and I really think now is a great chance for the EU to seize the moment and really partner with Africa in the most balanced way possible. The EU is going through a little bit of a panic attack and is trying to catch up with the presence of these emerging powers in the continent. It is, in this context, trying to reinvent its relationship with the continent, trying to turn it into one that enacts opportunity instead of burden. Portugal is, in the context of the summit, also trying to reinvent its relationship with the former colonies as part of this process.

I have some Zimbabwean friends down here and other friends who have travelled to the country very recently. The situation is bad. Nevertheless, not having Mugabe attending the summit would change nothing and would offer African and Europeans no more than the symbolic contentment of an empty diplomatic gesture.

Mugabe is going to attend and Brown is not. Sadly, little will change in the end. The question to ask is how things will change when Mugabe goes...I would put quite a few question marks on that one.

Let me now explain my question and thinking a bit further.I'm interested specifically in why Britain refuses to engage Zimbabwediplomatically in an EU context (both in the 2003 conference and now). Of course, severely restricting bilateral relations makes sense ifBlair and Brown find it politically advantageous to make a firm pointabout Mugabe's human rights record and land reform policies. But why carry this into the realm of the EU? I think the answer is to befound in the way that EU-Africa politics threaten colonialrelationships.Let me begin by saying that I realize the precedent set with the 2003boycott complicates the Lisbon case, but that begs the question, whywas this precedent set in the first place? There are so many reasonsand convenient excuses that would allow Britain to quietly attend thesummit without seeming hypocritical. If asked in a press conference,the change of prime minister (although not of government) is anexample of a perfectly legitimate reason for a "change of heart"towards the Mugabe regime. Alternatively, the British government couldnobly champion the cause of the Zimbabwean people based on recenteconomic developments and engage Mugabe on their behalf. If I were aqualified political consultant instead of an undergraduate, I'm sure Icould come up with even more ways for Brown to "save face" – so whydoes he insist on making Mugabe's attendance an issue?You brought up the idea of political capital several times in yourreply – I find that Brown is expending a serious amount of politicalcapital on this boycott by forcing other EU member states to weigh inpublicly on Mugabe's attendance. Even the Czechs have an opinion now! (http://www.boston.com/news/world/africa/articles/2007/10/17/czechs_consider_boycott_of_eu_africa_summit/) What is he getting in return besides complaints from his EUneighbors and African leaders alike? Clearly, he is concerned aboutsomething more than Mugabe's (admittedly bad) human rights record,since the boycott approach is doing nothing. You said it yourself – "clear-headed diplomatic engagement is better than no engagement at all." Brown is handing African leaders more reasons to ignoreWestern input on the basis of "colonial meddling."The puzzle pieces just don't seem to fit: Britain can still take afirm position against Mugabe without publicly embarrassing the EU overits fragmented African foreign policy. You would think at a time likethis, when other economic competitors like India and China are readyto pounce that Britain would be especially sensitive to the EU's needto put on a strong, welcoming front.Could it be that Britain sniffs other colonial interests at play? IfBritain sees the EU-AU summit as a forum for other former imperialpowers to further their own interests at the expense of Commonwealthrelationships, then they would effectively be faced with two badchoices: Attend and lose out economically and geopolitically. Boycottand lose politically. Farfetched? Reality aside, this could be whatBrown believes. Last week, the BBC reported:"Key former Portuguese colonies in Africa, including the large andoil-rich nation of Angola, made it clear to Portugal, a relativelysmall European state, that they wanted Mr Mugabe to attend." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7075767.stm )Alright, so if that conspiracy theory doesn't float your boat andPortugal is not playing Britain for a fool, how about this moregeneral (and much more plausible) one: What Brown is effectively doingis pushing the EU off the stage as a negotiator with Africa as aregion, at least for now. Because the UK is bound to contest any sortof regional interaction on the basis of Mugabe's human rights record,bilateral relationships will be strengthened, simply because they areeasier and less polarized (as long as you're not talking aboutbi-lateral relationships with Zimbabwe, that is). For the time being,Britain will be able to preserve their special relations withCommonwealth countries – not only in terms of economics (however weakthose agreements may be at this point, I'm not sure) but also in terms of geopolitical standing. Brown has managed to paint the EU as ahopelessly fragmented entity when it comes to Africa, an image thatwill stick in the coming years despite provisions in the Lisbon Treatyto strengthen the CSFP pillar. It is unlikely in the short-term thatthe EU will be able to mount any policies towards Africa that willdiminish Britain's standing in the region.In my opinion, the question is not whether colonial relationships willcontinue to exist, but rather, who will dominate them.I tried to keep my first question very general, because I didn't wantmy ideas to interfere with your (very probably correct) "gutfeelings". I agree with you that Portugal is probably not looking tofurther its national interests, but that doesn't mean its goals forthe EU don't conflict with Britain's latent colonial leanings. Icould be way off target with some of my arguments, and I readily admitthat some of them are a bit radical... I hesitate to even call themarguments -- conjectures may fit better. I'm simply trying tocompensate for what I perceive as an absolute lack of analysis on thecolonial angle in current EU-Africa politics. I invite you to sharewith me as many criticisms as you can find, and I'm sure there aremany.A point aside -- I think you may underestimate the amount of politicalcapital that Portugal can afford to spend on the upcoming summit.They're not exactly going it alone – although the first leg of theTrio Presidency is officially out, Merkel is doing a lot of diplomaticmaneuvering on behalf of Portugal. Apparently, she fancies herselfsomewhat of a Bismarckian "honest broker" (not to over-use the term)since German colonial ties were severed relatively early, after WWI.(http://thepolitic.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=38&Itemid=39→ second question). Also, I've found numerous articles that began torefer to the Lisbon summit as soon as the Lisbon Treaty was signed,meaning the media was being prepped for the onslaught of attention theissue was about to receive. Here's an example:http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/E6EF0BC1-B1D6-4D88-9FF0-5742A9E50B3F.htm

Thank you Charlotte, thanks to you I've been enjoying chatting away about these issues with colleagues and friends and scratching my head wondering about Gordon Brown's stubborness. For all the famous ability of Mugabe to 'embarass' heads of state or high profile diplomatic persona I cannot possibly imagine Gordon Brown could be afraid of it and attempt to avoid embarrassment by not pitching in. You are "spot on" when you say that Gordon Brown could easily have one of his spin-doctors design a way to put his anti-Mugabe point accross IN the conference. Again, why he chooses not to do so is beyond me.

The British have continuously assumed an extreme position on the argument by gladly pushing for the building of "foreign policy fences" around Zimbabwe and non-engagement. The only case which I can think in which such a policy arguably worked was right here, during South Africa's apartheid era and the international conserted policy of economic and political confinement. Even then, it took many decades for it to actually work and the situation was intrinsically distinct to the one of Zimbabwe today.

Is Gordon Brown perhaps only trying to gain 'brownie points' at his home constituency ? That seems to be the most likely explanation. He has been and will keep on justifying the absence by putting into evidence just how great a human rights and good governance defender he is.

The strategic repercussions of this decision are indeed very worrying. Your observation "Brown is pushing the EU off the stage as a negotiator with Africa as a region, at least for now" is an interesting one. I don't think the commonwealth constitutes in any way or form a more viable alternative than the EU for the UK to conduct its foreign policy towards Africa. The UK has, in my opinion, very little to benefit with the failing of a conserted EU policy, Africa is no exception.

In regards to your take on the persisting colonial leanings of the current relationship, I welcome your radical thinking. I do believe however that labelling as "colonial" the set of power, economic and political linkages between EU and Africa is not very explanatory of how these relationships are actually unfolding.. Africa is today, for a good number of different reasons, considerably leveraging its position vis-a-vis Europe, the US and other traditionally Western-dominated international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. Dependence is still here but eroding.

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