A European Union-sanctioned waiver allowing Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to attend this week's Franco-African summit could undermine the credibility of further sanctions, analysts said on Tuesday.
Media reports last week said the British government backed the waiver on travel sanctions to allow Mugabe to attend the Paris summit as part of an arrangement in which France agreed not to oppose the renewal of EU sanctions slapped on Mugabe and members of his cabinet a year ago. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, denied that London was complicit in the deal.
The waiver came after French President Jacques Chirac sought a concession for an exemption on Mugabe, citing the need for further dialogue to resolve the country's human rights and economic crisis. He also said other African leaders threatened to boycott the 20-21 February summit unless Mugabe participated.
On Tuesday EU ambassadors were expected to officially renew sanctions for a further 12 months against Zimbabwe, including a ban on travel to EU states by the country's leadership.
The EU has also postponed indefinitely a summit with African Caribbean and Pacific countries planned for Portugal in April to sidestep the possibility of fresh controversy over another Mugabe visit to a European capital.
But analysts told IRIN that the debate that has ensued among EU members following the French invitation underscored the lack of a united policy on how to resolve the political impasse in Zimbabwe.
"The fracas between Britain and France over how the crisis in Zimbabwe should be resolved provides further evidence that there is deep fragmentation and polarisation over a united EU foreign policy. This relates not only to Zimbabwe, but extends to differing opinions over the proposed war on Iraq," a researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, Chris Maroleng, said.
"Moreover, France's invitation to Mugabe is not surprising. The French have always supported sustained dialogue with African regimes. Mugabe's attendance at the summit sets a disappointing precedent and further throws into question not only the credibility of further sanctions but the commitment of the West to democratic change in Zimbabwe," he added.
Mugabe's trip comes as sub-Saharan Africa's most influential nations, Nigeria and South Africa, last week urged the Commonwealth to end Zimbabwe's year-long suspension, citing progress towards resolving the country's political crisis. But Australia's Prime Minister John Howard, a member of the Commonwealth troika committee monitoring Zimbabwe, has called for Zimbabwe to be suspended for another 12 months.
The Commonwealth's decision to suspend Zimbabwe followed presidential elections in March 2002, which a Commonwealth observer team said were marred by violence and were not free or fair.
Critics say the decision by Obasanjo and Mbeki to lobby on Mugabe's behalf has thrown him an undeserved diplomatic lifeline.
"While Mbeki and Obasanjo talk about progress toward some kind of normalisation in Zimbabwe there is in fact little evidence of this. What is seriously lacking with regards to a solution in Zimbabwe is moral leadership. There is lot of pragmatism but very little in the way of genuine political will," Maroleng said.
Other analysts have suggested that behind-the-scenes efforts were underway to persuade Mugabe to moderate his policies, which could lead to a government of national unity as a way out of the country's impasse.
In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) at the weekend, Mbeki said Pretoria's "quiet diplomacy" was bearing fruit.
"One of the matters we've raised with them [Zimbabwe] is that there have been complaints raised about ... legislation passed that has an impact on the press. That it was necessary to look at that legislation and see what was wrong with it and change it. And indeed the Zimbabweans have agreed to that," Mbeki told the SABC.
South African Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad said on Tuesday: "Our critics fail to explain what 'megaphone diplomacy' has achieved. They fail or refuse to acknowledge that since the political and economic crisis started we have been tirelessly engaged in efforts to help the Zimbabweans to deal with their crisis."
Under EU sanctions, Mugabe, his wife Grace, and leading members of his ruling ZANU-PF party are barred from entering EU territory. The sanctions also include a freeze on assets they might have in the 15-nation bloc, as well as an arms embargo. The EU cited pre-election violence, human rights violations and obstacles to a free vote as reasons for the ban.
The United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have also imposed travel sanctions on government officials, but Mugabe has been able to attend UN summits in both Europe and the United States.