The upcoming summit between African and European Union (EU) leaders could be in doubt, with Robert Mugabe mulling a boycott if his wife is not granted a travel visa to join him.
The fourth EU-Africa summit is set to take place in Brussels, Belgium, on the 2nd to the 3rd April under the theme "Investing in People, Prosperity and Peace".
Mugabe was invited despite remaining a target of the EU's restrictive measures that prohibit European travel. The ZANU PF leader's wife is also targeted with the measures, which were significantly reduced by the EU last month.
But despite Grace Mugabe playing no diplomatic role in the upcoming talks, the failure by the EU to invite her and extend a travel visa to her has angered her 90 year old spouse. Grace is often referred to as the 'First Shopper' of Zimbabwe, and is known for her opulent spending sprees during overseas travel. The measures against her and husband are also commonly referred to as 'shopping sanctions' because they prevent the fashion conscious Grace from spending in Europe.
EU Ambassador to Zimbabwe Aldo Dell'Ariccia, stated this week that the European bloc "invited those with a role to play at the meetings and the programmes of the meetings don't have any role for spouses."
But Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba blasted the EU position, telling the state media that the stance was "strange".
"It's very strange that the EU has not extended an invitation to the First Lady. What God has put together the EU is trying to separate. Do they expect the President to respect the EU and disrespect his own marriage?" Charamba was quoted as saying.
Mugabe is reportedly also fuming over the EU's decision not to invite his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, who faces war crimes and genocide charges before the International Criminal Court. Also left off the invite list is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, an African Union (AU) member. This has also prompted speculation of a possible boycott of the meeting by Mugabe.
It was originally unclear if Mugabe himself would be invited to the summit. But the EU appeared to give in to pressure from the AU which had threatened to withdraw from the meeting if Mugabe was not invited. This was stated shortly after an AU meeting in February where Mugabe was appointed to the First Deputy Chair of the AU. This puts him in line to take over as the AU Chair next year.
Former diplomat and political commentator Clifford Mashiri said the EU's repeated capitulations to accommodate Mugabe meant the bloc has lost credibility. He told SW Radio Africa that he wouldn't be surprised if the EU gave in to the pressure to give Grace a visa.
"The EU has created a problem for itself by even entertaining these African dictators. It has lost credibility and allowed itself to be swayed by its economic interests," Mashiri said.
Europe has been increasing its re-engagement efforts with ZANU PF ever since the party secured a contested 'victory' at last year's elections. The efforts to 'normalise' bilateral relations have been spearheaded by Belgium, the diamond capital of Europe, amid criticism that the economic gains of the European nation were being prioritised over the democratic rights of Zimbabweans.
The Antwerp World Diamond Council recently admitted it pushed for the removal of the targeted sanctions on Mugabe's cronies to ensure it secured the rights to trade in Chiadzwa diamonds.
Meanwhile, the London based protest group the Zimbabwe Vigil is still working out a plan to hold a demonstration against Mugabe's presence at the EU-Africa summit next week. Vigil coordinator Rose Benton said Tuesday that they will wait to see if Mugabe decides to attend the meeting or not.