For a long time, most Africans viewed the European Union (EU) only in terms of their countries’ relationships with former colonial powers, notably the United Kingdom (UK) and France. The UK has been the primary European influence in Zimbabwe because of the colonial history between the two nations. The reality is that most Zimbabweans have not always fully understood the structure of the EU or the organization’s influence in their country.
However, in recent decades, the EU has gained a spotlight—along with the United States—because of the sanctions placed on Zimbabwe after the land-reform program in the 1990s and years of human rights abuses. One might say that sanctions are the focal point of Zimbabwe-EU relations. Yet, while EU representatives, like their UK and U.S. counterparts, have claimed that the sanctions are targeted and do not hurt ordinary citizens, this message has not landed well among Zimbabweans.1 The Zimbabwean government continues to send the message to the country’s citizens that sanctions are to blame for the failing economy. Indeed, a mantra of opposing sanctions has been the main campaign message of the ruling party for nearly twenty years.
While the Zimbabwean government has been adamant about pursuing its land-reform program, which seeks to alter the ethnic balance of land ownership, and blaming Western states for Zimbabwe’s failures, the country needs aid. Since the death of former president Robert Mugabe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been eager to normalize Zimbabwe’s relationships with Western countries. To that end, the late foreign affairs minister, Sibusiso Moyo, and the finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, aggressively pushed the message that Zimbabwe was open for business and limited reforms. Moyo emphasized that Zimbabwe was incredibly open to reengagement with the EU.2
Meanwhile, EU diplomats in Zimbabwe have been keen to differentiate the EU from the UK and create a more active presence in the country. The union has moderately increased its humanitarian aid work and normalized trade relations between Zimbabwe and EU member states. Brexit has had a positive impact on the EU’s standing in Zimbabwe: as both the EU and the UK seek new ways to engage with Zimbabwe, Brussels has been more successful in articulating its position independently of London.
This chapter draws on in-depth interviews conducted over WhatsApp with the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe, with an EU official who has served in Zimbabwe for over a decade, and with eight individuals from the ruling party, the opposition, and civil society. In addition, the research involved conversations with academics, journalists, lawyers, and other professionals, as well as Zimbabweans in the United States and Zimbabwe. The conversations occurred between December 2020 and March 2021.
Current Perceptions of the EU
Zimbabweans’ perceptions of the EU are inextricably linked to Western sanctions. Beyond the immediate impacts of the punitive measures on daily life, sanctions have also colored Zimbabwean views of the EU on issues such as development, democracy support, and healthcare.
The deterioration in Zimbabwe-EU relations can be traced back to the early 2000s, which marked a shift in Zimbabwean politics from a young democracy to a highly repressive state. The formation of a new opposition party led by activists, professionals, and trade unionists presented a real challenge to the one-party dominance of the Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Ahead of the 2000 legislative election, several regional and international organizations, including the EU, sent observer missions to Zimbabwe. ZANU-PF officials argued that the Zimbabwean government showed goodwill by allowing these missions into the country.
The EU mission, headed by Pierre Schori of Sweden, issued its final report on the election on July 4, 2000.3 The report found that the body responsible for managing elections had not been adequately trained and lacked resources. More than twenty years on, this is still true and perhaps even worse. The EU report also noted high levels of violence, coercion, and intimidation before and during the election. Again, this continues to be a major problem with Zimbabwean elections. At the time, ZANU-PF officials felt that the report was one-sided and aimed at tarnishing the country’s image. Opposition leaders and other activists have different recollections of the time: they feel that the 2000 election was the most open contest to date.
In conversations with current and former ZANU-PF officials, it was clear that the 2000 report by Schori’s team is still a sore subject. Soon after the report’s publication, the EU, the UK, and the United States issued warnings against the Zimbabwean government. In retaliation, Harare decided to ban all Western observers from the highly anticipated 2002 presidential election. As a result, Schori and his team of thirty observers were asked to leave the country in February 2002, just a month before the poll.4
In response to the 2000 election, the EU did not initially impose sanctions but instead issued a statement condemning the violence that had taken place. The EU tried to engage the Zimbabwean government via Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, a treaty between the EU and African, Caribbean, and Pacific states, emphasizing that aid to Zimbabwe would be conditional on good governance.5 However, the continued violation of human rights and the 2002 expulsion of the EU observer mission convinced the European Council that restrictive measures targeting government officials were justified.6
The sanctions against Zimbabwe passed by the EU, the United States, and the UK have been a significant source of contention in Zimbabwe ever since. The sanctions are limited and directly impact officials of the ruling party, their families, and anyone responsible for human rights violations. Under the restrictive measures, specific individuals are banned from traveling to Europe and the United States, and their foreign assets are frozen. Under the Cotonou Agreement, the EU also suspended all direct development cooperation with the Zimbabwean government. However, because of manipulation by ZANU-PF, some citizens perceive the sanctions as the primary cause of Zimbabwe’s declining economy and the reason why they individually are poor. Some citizens also think that the country has failed to make strides on the global economic stage because sanctions prevent Zimbabwe from exporting goods.
Opposition politicians and pro-democracy activists in Zimbabwe have a slightly different view of the sanctions. Those in opposition have hoped that the Zimbabwean government would be motivated to open up the country’s political space if doing so would lead to a relaxation of some of the sanctions. But the ruling party has continued to use sanctions to excuse its multitude of failures. Relations between Zimbabwe and the EU have continued to deteriorate over the years. ZANU-PF has since labeled civil society organizations and Western nations “traitors” and “change agents.”
Government officials argue that the sanctions have stifled development. Zimbabwe is barred from getting much-needed loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Perhaps more pressing for the government is that the sanctions have tainted the country’s image. One government official said that sanctions are like a “death mark” because no one wants to do legitimate business in Zimbabwe.7 After all, potential investors fear that the West may retaliate by blacklisting their countries’ governments for having worked with Zimbabwe. Although there was no evidence of this retaliation, the fear of it is real enough.
The government also maintains that although the EU and other Western counterparts claim that the sanctions are targeted, their impact is not. Government officials and, indeed, most regular citizens interviewed believed that the struggles of ordinary people are directly tied to the sanctions. Citizens of various ages and education levels all shared the belief that while the intention of the sanctions is targeted, their effect is universal.
A big challenge for the EU with respect to the sanctions narrative in Zimbabwe is that the messaging has never been clear—or rather, that the EU, as one former diplomat said, has lost the “messaging battle,” with profound unintended consequences.8 For example, some Zimbabwean companies have faced difficulties when trying to do business in the United States and EU countries. The EU as a donor is within its rights to sanction officials in an attempt to hold the Zimbabwean government to account for its well-documented human rights abuses. The real issue is not whether the EU should use its influence to enforce human rights but rather how the EU can best achieve this without punishing ordinary citizens.
Brian Raftopoulos, a leading political scientist, reported in an interview that European diplomats had pointed to many missed opportunities to reengage on the topic of sanctions and development. For example, during the 2008–2013 Government of National Unity, in which ZANU-PF and opposition parties shared governance after the contentious 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections, the EU could have extended an olive branch to support the efforts of pro-democracy initiatives. However, instead, most EU countries closed their embassies in Zimbabwe. As the embassy staff left, the number of donors and the amount of aid available in the country shrank. Some in the opposition felt that the EU was quick to embrace ZANU-PF during the Government of National Unity and again more openly in the period immediately after the 2017 Zimbabwean coup.
A former UK representative to Zimbabwe stated in an interview that in 2017, most diplomats had been ready to move on from two decades of troubled politics and support the new Zimbabwean government. At the time, the UK representative was the most prominent European diplomat in Zimbabwe, and citizens generally saw the UK position as representative of the EU as a whole.
Civil society and opposition leaders agree that democracy in Zimbabwe would have suffered even more without EU aid. Assistance provided by the union and other donors, such as the United States and Scandinavian countries, kept the lights on for pro-democracy organizations. Specifically, doctors who provided care for activists reported that most of the medical aid given to Zimbabwe was made possible by generous contributions from donors. Of course, this engagement between donors and civil society is not well regarded by the ruling party. According to ZANU-PF officials, the fact that the EU was willing to work with groups they call change agents is evidence that the union did not respect Zimbabwe’s independence.
Civil society representatives and individuals active in political spaces are very knowledgeable about the EU and its various programs in Zimbabwe. Three directors of local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) interviewed were direct beneficiaries of funding from the EU or from EU member states like Sweden; most of this aid has gone toward healthcare projects and community awareness. At the same time, those in the civil society sector reported that funding for community partnerships had declined in recent years. The United States has also been providing aid to community organizations, but that aid, too, is dwindling.
Civil society activists attributed this shift to a change in the relationships between Zimbabwe’s ruling party and Western embassies. These activists feel that as the EU has warmed to the Mnangagwa government, the Europeans have become more reluctant to provide funding. EU officials, for their part, claim that their relationship with Zimbabwean NGOs has not waned and that they are committed to supporting pro-democracy initiatives. When asked whether they had warmed to the new government, the EU officials said that the relationship was evolving. Indeed, the EU has been eager to normalize relations with Zimbabwe and has welcomed the political promises of Mnangagwa’s government a bit too hastily and without real progress on the ground.
Opposition politicians and activists also share the concern that funding for pro-democracy initiatives is on the decline. A civil society leader reported that over the last five years, Western partners had reduced their support for pro-democracy organizations by about 50 percent.9 In the weeks leading up to Zimbabwe’s 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections, the United States pulled funding from critical organizations working on electoral transparency, including in Zimbabwe, and another group that provides healthcare for victims of political violence.
The EU has traditionally tailored its behavior to that of the United States in the sense that Western partners tend to work on similar projects, and it appears to Zimbabwean civil society activists that the EU follows the U.S. lead in this area. There is also a sense among nonstate actors in Zimbabwe that EU member states and other partners have not done enough to push the government in Harare to include them in discussions on moving the country forward.
An EU official in Zimbabwe admitted that the type of EU aid that goes to nonstate actors was bound to decline. It is understandable that Western officials are concerned about complaints from their citizens about overspending in foreign countries, but perhaps the issue has to do with how aid is framed back home. Like most African countries, Zimbabwe is still recovering from the legacy of colonialism, although the authoritarian nature of the current government has not helped. There are many reasons why Zimbabwe’s main opposition is weakened, including poor structural organization, infighting, and threats from the ruling party, but chief among them is a lack of funding. There is a sense from members of the opposition that donor partners have shut their doors.
Therefore, while EU countries might seek to reduce overseas aid to cater to dissenting voices at home, this strategy has its problems. The declining level of EU aid and the conditionality attached to it present a challenge for the union as China is already invested in Zimbabwe and is willing to work with the government without putting any pressure on the state to improve its poor human rights record. Western nations cannot afford to push for economic partnerships while ignoring political stability.
Unlike activists focused on governance and democracy issues, interlocutors in the health sector depicted a different picture and seemed pleased with EU engagement. They generally recognized that the EU had been influential in providing much-needed funds for local institutions.
On the coronavirus pandemic, second and third waves of the virus have been particularly detrimental to African countries. Many interviewees had lost at least one family member to the coronavirus or secondary causes related to pressures on Zimbabwe’s healthcare system.
There is concern among Zimbabweans that Western partners, including the EU, have not done all in their power to help developing nations like Zimbabwe acquire coronavirus vaccines. In terms of vaccine procurement, China has been a more loyal partner than the EU to African countries. Zimbabwe is one of few African states with an advanced vaccination program, yet the only available vaccine in Zimbabwe is from China. Although most Zimbabwean citizens do not trust the Chinese vaccine, there are no other options available, as Western countries have been slow to approve the sharing of vaccine patents. Perhaps if there were more choice, more Zimbabweans would take up a coronavirus vaccine, thereby increasing community protection against the virus.
The pandemic was an opportunity for the EU to strengthen its relations with Zimbabwe by providing much-needed healthcare relief and engaging in partnerships on healthcare access and vaccine delivery, but this did not happen. Zimbabwe’s healthcare system was already weak before the pandemic and is in a much worse situation now.
Future Priorities for EU-Zimbabwe Relations
Within the framework of the EU-Zimbabwe relationship, there are opportunities for the Europeans to revitalize their approaches toward Zimbabwe on a range of issues, from education and work to agriculture and trade through to climate change and human rights.
Education and Work
Zimbabwe, like most African countries, has the advantage of a young population. Young people interviewed had a better understanding of the EU as a separate entity from its member states. Young people also saw many opportunities for engaging with the EU. The youth primarily argued that they would like to see the EU create more study exchanges between member states and Zimbabwe like those established by the United States, the UK, and now China. Young Zimbabweans interested in the health sector or technology could benefit from attending European universities.
While it is true that many Zimbabweans who emigrate for study do not return home immediately after completing their studies, it is also true that they tend to be gainfully employed in their host countries and their remittances have a positive impact on the livelihoods of families left behind. At the same time, the UK and the United States both offer time-limited study programs that incentivize foreign students to return to their home countries. There is an opportunity for the EU to do the same.
Interviewees also suggested that the EU might consider short-term immigrant worker opportunities to boost sectors in which EU member countries do not have a sufficient workforce. For example, Zimbabwe has a large population of trained nurses and other healthcare workers, while the EU has an aging population with a high demand for health professionals. EU member states could establish agreements with the Zimbabwean government to allow part of an employee’s salary to be remitted directly to Zimbabwe. Two Zimbabwean nurses based in Germany mentioned in interviews that they had seen a growing need for their expertise, and countries like Germany are well equipped to enable such professional relationships.
Meanwhile, a truck driver based in Victoria Falls suggested transportation as another area for possible engagement. Zimbabwe has a surplus of trained truck drivers, while Western countries are in need of individuals with this skill set. Therefore, this is an opportunity for short-term guest worker programs.
EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe Timo Olkkonen said he hoped to see more Zimbabwe-EU partnerships in tourism. Many Zimbabwean respondents shared the same sentiment. In recent years, the number of EU tourists going to Zimbabwe has declined. The loss of tourism revenue is felt especially in Victoria Falls, where locals depend heavily on tourism for their day-to-day living.
A local chief who runs a cultural village noted that whereas in the past he would have as many as twenty tour groups a day, now he is lucky if a handful show up in a week. Part of this decline is no doubt due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the chief also felt that miscommunication by the United States, the UK, and the EU about sanctions had contributed to negative publicity about Zimbabwe and the subsequent decline in tourism. At the same time, Zimbabwean government officials claim that the West’s language on sanctions has created the image that Zimbabwe is a war zone, which is far from an accurate representation of the situation in the country.
The decline in tourism is one of the unintended consequences of the poor framing of Western sanctions. Many foreign tourists are unable to access their bank accounts while they are in Zimbabwe because the banks are operating in a country under embargo. While such issues can be quickly resolved over the phone, they create a hostile tourism environment. Zimbabweans would like to be better informed by European representatives about which entities are affected by sanctions to reduce the negative impacts on regular citizens.
Agriculture and Trade
In addition to tourism, Zimbabweans see opportunities in the agricultural sector. Zimbabwe was once considered the breadbasket of Africa. While the hurried land-reform program caused serious havoc in the sector, there have been significant improvements, especially from younger and more innovative farmers. For example, Clarence Mwale, a young entrepreneur whose company assists farmers in meeting EU regulations, said that there were many products from Zimbabwe that could be of great value to the EU. Beyond traditional exports like horticulture, Zimbabwean farmers have been heavily investing in organic food.
However, small farmers face many barriers to entering the European market because of trade imbalances. Export costs for Zimbabweans are too high, and the requirements for their goods to enter the EU are needlessly cumbersome. Zimbabwean farmers also complained of being jilted by European counterparts. For example, one horticulture farmer interviewed chose to dig in an entire field of flowers after his EU buyers cut the purchase price by more than 70 percent.10
Zimbabwean traders reported that in their attempts to circumvent the challenges posed by the sanctions against Zimbabwe, they sometimes end up dealing with dishonest Europeans who promise to help them process the necessary export paperwork. For instance, the same horticulture farmer said that poor EU regulation left African farmers like him at risk of dealing with predators. He explained that he once sold his produce via a European third party who had promised to help him get around the sanctions. The party ended up swindling him out of both his produce and his money.
Misinformation about sanctions also plays a role in limiting exports of Zimbabwean produce to the European market. More clarity and better communication on sanctions, aside from countering political manipulation, could benefit Zimbabwean exporters and ensure that European consumers have access to a broader range of organic food products. EU diplomats in Zimbabwe mentioned that they would like to see more trade engagement between Zimbabwe and the EU, so clearly, there is an understanding that this relationship is beneficial to both parties.
However, in September 2020, the EU said it would not renew its funding in support of agricultural activities in Zimbabwe.11 Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development gave nearly €83 million ($86.9 million) between October 2019 and March 2020 to improve food security in Zimbabwe, and China has donated agricultural equipment.12 Agriculture remains the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy, providing employment for at least 70 percent of the population, with 60 percent of raw materials and over 45 percent of the nation’s exports originating in the agricultural sector. Much of Zimbabwe’s trade is anchored in agriculture as either raw materials or secondary products.13
Greater European investment in agriculture would directly benefit the millions of Zimbabweans employed in the sector and strengthen people’s resolve to make political choices that are not influenced by their desperate need for food. Additional support for Zimbabwean farmers would also benefit the EU, especially given the devastating impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine—one of the world’s leading producers of grain.
Zimbabweans in the agricultural sector would also like to see more engagement on climate change–related issues. Zimbabwe has experienced extreme weather changes, resulting in floods and droughts. In 2019, in response to Cyclone Idai, the EU donated over €12 million ($13 million) to the three affected countries of Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.14 Individuals involved in the relief efforts said that every donation made an impact in terms of saving lives and rebuilding homes.
Thinking ahead, farmers and academics said that EU-Zimbabwean relations could be strengthened through the sharing of knowledge and expertise and farmer-exchange programs. Additionally, the EU has a lot of experience to share on maximizing space, managing waste and water, controlling pollution, and creating smart cities.
Young Zimbabweans also pointed out that the EU and other Western donors tend to have a rural bias in their aid programs, leaving the urban youth vulnerable to poverty. The excessive focus on providing food aid to rural areas leads, perhaps unintentionally, to the bolstering of the ruling party, because it often gets the credit for rural programs that perform well. Interviewees suggested that if the EU invested in the urban youth, they would be better positioned to find sustainable employment, which would address some of their social challenges. In addition, the creation of more opportunities for the youth would help mitigate Zimbabwe’s massive problem of drug addiction among its young population.
By increasing its urban-focused programs, the EU would also boost its visibility in Zimbabwe and could create opportunities in areas such as the digital economy. EU support in 2021 of over €3 million ($3.2 million) to address food insecurity among urban Zimbabweans was a step in the right direction.15 However, this aid could be improved with direct grants to support employment creation, so that people can have an income to buy their own food. Solving food challenges is a sustainable, long-term strategy for dealing with conflict and political manipulation by the ruling party.
Finally, the EU’s strong position on human rights, while admirable, must show flexibility in areas that can empower ordinary Zimbabweans. That is to say, the EU should give equal attention to Zimbabwe’s economic needs. A more robust economy would support the growth of a solid middle class, which would be empowered to demand better governance and would therefore be good for democracy. Organic demands for reforms from a self-sustaining population are likely to have a greater and more durable impact than efforts imposed from outside.
The EU has been a consistent partner of Zimbabwe for many years. However, the way the EU operates and its impacts are not clear to ordinary Zimbabweans—or even, at times, to the educated elites, although there is some nuance among civil society actors. Quite a few interviewees confused the EU with the IMF. Through its delegation in Zimbabwe, the EU could do more to invest in a visibility campaign. Part of the challenge here is that several EU member states as well as non-European countries are active in Zimbabwe, making it difficult for the average Zimbabwean to differentiate them.
Given some Zimbabweans’ past tendency to confuse the EU with the UK (and its heavy colonial baggage), one of the unexpected benefits of Brexit is that it has freed the EU from the UK’s shadow. Recent EU delegations have done an excellent job of engaging with Zimbabweans on social media and increasing the EU’s visibility; however, since only a small proportion of Zimbabwe’s population is active on social media, such efforts have a limited impact.
The most critical issue stalling EU-Zimbabwe relations, though, has to do with the sanctions on the country. The moral reasons behind the measures are valid, but the messaging on them has failed in both Zimbabwe and Europe. This has led to adverse unintended consequences on ordinary people, affecting trade, tourism, and other areas of development. To address this shortcoming, the EU needs to invest in better messaging on sanctions. As things stand, Zimbabwe’s ruling party seems to be winning the propaganda war as it continues to use the sanctions as an excuse for its failures.
A note of hope comes from Zimbabweans, especially the youth, who see room for collaboration on trade, tourism, migration, and investment to address climate challenges. EU citizens can benefit from Zimbabwean agriculture and tourism while Zimbabweans can gain from knowledge sharing and educational opportunities. The coronavirus pandemic opened new avenues of virtual collaboration. Looking ahead, there is hope for better relations between Zimbabwe and the EU.
Chipo Dendere is an assistant professor of political science in the Africana Studies Department at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.
1 Bowden B. C. Mbanje and Darlington N. Mahuku, “European Union Sanctions and Their Impacts on Zimbabwe 2002–2011: Finding Alternative Means to Survive,” Sacha Journal of Policy and Strategic Studies 1 (2011).
2 Sibusiso Moyo, “Towards a New Era in EU-Zimbabwe Relations,” EUobserver, November 22, 2019, https://euobserver.com/opinion/146676.
3 Henri E. Cauvin, “Observers Issue Tough Report on Zimbabwe Vote Climate,” New York Times, June 26, 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/26/world/observers-issue-tough-report-on-zimbabwe-vote-climate.html.
4 Andrew Meldrum, “Mugabe Throws Out EU Observer,” Guardian, February 17, 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/feb/17/zimbabwe.andrewmeldrum.
5 Jan Grebe, “And They Are Still Targeting: Assessing the Effectiveness of Targeted Sanctions Against Zimbabwe,” Africa Spectrum 45, no. 1 (2010): 3–29, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F000203971004500101.
6 Meldrum, “Mugabe Throws Out.”
7 Virtual interview with an official in the Zimbabwean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, June 2021.
8 Virtual interview with a former EU diplomat in Zimbabwe, June 2021.
9 Virtual interview with an official from Human Rights Watch in Harare.
10 Virtual interview with a flower farmer based in Harare, June 2021.
11 Vince Chadwick, “EU Ambassador Says Renewing Budget Support to Zimbabwe ‘Impossible,’” Devex, September 2, 2020, https://www.devex.com/news/eu-ambassador-says-renewing-budget-support-to-zimbabwe-impossible-98010.
12 Doreen Hove, “Food Security,” U.S. Agency for International Development, August 6, 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/zimbabwe/agriculture-and-food-security.
13 “Agriculture,” Zimbabwean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, http://www.zimfa.gov.zw/index.php/about-us/zimbabwe-in-brief/agriculture.
14 “Cyclone Idai: €12 Million EU Assistance in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi,” ReliefWeb, April 9, 2019, https://reliefweb.int/report/mozambique/cyclone-idai-12-million-eu-assistance-mozambique-zimbabwe-and-malawi.
15 “EU Provides Emergency Cash Assistance and Nutrition Support to People Facing Extreme Food Insecurity in Zimbabwe,” ReliefWeb, August 10, 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/zimbabwe/eu-provides-emergency-cash-assistance-and-nutrition-support-people-facing-extreme.