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Ilived and worked in Zimbabwe in the 1960s. Then it was Rhodesia and Ian Smith was in charge. In those days rebellion was gentler than it is today. The governor, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, who had refused to recognise Mr Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), still lived in Government House. He declared his visitors’ book open for those wishing to show their loyalty to the Queen.

Not to be outdone, Clifford Dupont, Mr Smith’s alternative governor, who lived on the same street, announced that his book would also be open for those who supported UDI. I drove down, in my battered Morris Minor, to find a policeman enquiring which book I wished to sign and pointing me in the right direction! What a very British way to fight against tyranny.

Today, politics in Zimbabwe is a grimmer business. The country has gone from being a breadbasket to a basket case. Inflation is more than 6,000 per cent a year, most whites have left and Robert Mugabe’s thugs beat up political rivals while plundering the nation’s assets.

There is little the rest of the world can do to hasten Mr Mugabe’s downfall. South Africa is the only country that has real clout but President Thabo Mbeki, to his shame, refuses to act. This is a real tragedy. It was South Africa’s withdrawal of support, under P.W. Botha, that eventually forced
Mr Smith to abandon UDI.

But Britain and Europe can still make an impact. Mr Mugabe and his henchmen are, currently, banned from visiting all European Union countries. But that ban is under threat from the proposed EU-African Union summit due to be held in Lisbon later this year. The Portuguese are desperate for the summit to go ahead. They know Mr Mugabe should not attend but fear an African Union boycott if he is excluded.

There are already signs of this becoming an embarrassing political fudge. José Sócrates, Portugal’s prime minister, has declared that “appropriate diplomatic formulae will be found”. An unnamed British official has said that “the issue of whether he is there or not should not detract from the substance or overshadow the summit”.

There has now been the absurd suggestion that Mr Mugabe might remain banned from Europe as president of Zimbabwe but be allowed to attend the summit as a member of the African Union delegation. Such an outcome would be a humiliation for the EU and should be unequivocally ruled out.

In the UK, Gordon Brown, prime minister, has tried to give the impression that Africa matters to him, while David Miliband, foreign secretary, has declared that human rights are a priority. So far both have been ambivalent and ambiguous on this issue. They have said they do not wish Mr Mugabe to attend, but are vague as to what should happen if the Portuguese or the African Union disagree.

This is not good enough. They should declare that if Mr Mugabe is allowed into Portugal, to strut around the proceedings, Britain will not attend. Neither the prime minister, nor foreign secretary nor any British diplomat should be present. We should do everything in our power to persuade other EU members to take the same line.

The issues at stake are considerable, for Europe and Africa as well as Zimbabwe. For Europeans there is an understandable desire for the summit to go ahead after a gap of seven years. The EU is nervous of the impact China is making in Africa and wants to remind Africans of the great potential that exists for trade with Europe. Southern Europeans, especially the French, Spanish and Italians, are worried about massive further migration from north Africa if poverty persists there.

But Africa still needs Europe more than the reverse. China can offer capital investment and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses but its roots in Africa are superficial and its interests purely resource-driven. Africa and Europe, in comparison, are geographical neighbours with much common history, sharing geopolitical concerns in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Muslim world.

The EU must hold its nerve. It must explain that while Zimbabwe can be represented, Mr Mugabe cannot attend. Diplomats should focus on devising a formula that will keep him away, not one that will enable him to attend.

There is one further, not insignificant, consideration. If the EU fudges this we not only betray the brave people of Zimbabwe; we say goodbye to any prospect of a meaningful European foreign policy. That should concentrate minds in Brussels wonderfully.

Sir Malcolm was UK minister of state for Africa 1983-86 and foreign secretary 1995-97

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