European Parliament Discusses Situation in Ethiopia ahead of 24 May Election: Is the EU Evaluating an Ambiguous Tradeoff?
On 20 May 2015, the situation in Ethiopia ahead of the 24 May parliamentary election was discussed during the European Parliament’s monthly plenary session in Strasbourg. After an introductory statement on the EU’s policy towards Ethiopia by Commissioner Christos Stylianides, speaking on behalf of EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, MEPs from across Europe and the political spectrum were given the opportunity to express their point of view on the issue. While several MEPs expressed deep concern for the human rights situation in Ethiopia, especially in the Ogaden region, and argued that the EU should make better use of its power and funds, others underlined the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the country, considered to be a cornerstone for stability in the Horn of Africa. Overall, the debate largely reflected the EU’s dilemma of a constant tradeoff between economic/security related interests and its core values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
That Ethiopia is an important partner to the European Union, especially thanks to the stabilising role it plays in the Horn of Africa and in countering religious extremists such as Al Shaabab, is hardly any breaking news. Neither is the important progress the country has made in terms of economic development in recent years. And yet, this is what the statement of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/ Commission Vice-President Federica Mogherini emphasised, while also, albeit rather softly, approaching the problems surrounding the upcoming Ethiopian election. While recognising that 24 May will not signify a victory for pluralist democracy with a free and fair plebiscite, the statement continued by stressing that the EU has raised its concerns with the Ethiopian government and that democratic transition always takes time.
Among the MEPs participating in the debate, Davor Ivo Stier (EPP), Miroslav Piotrovski (ECR), Cécile Kyenge (S&D), Lidia Senra Rodriguez (GUE), Jordi Sebastiá (EFA/Greens), Bogdan Wenta (EPP), Fabio Massimo Castaldo (EFDD), Josef Weidenholzer (S&D), Alessia Mosca (S&D), Julie Ward (S&D) and Ana Gomes (S&D) expressed great concern with regards to the human rights situation in the country, referring to, amongst others, the appalling statistics on imprisoned and exiled journalists and the difficulties faced by opposition groups who had tried to register for the elections. Many of the aforementioned also highlighted the fact that the previous elections, in 2005 and 2010 respectively, to which the EU had sent election observation missions, had been declared ‘not fair’ – a criticism bluntly rejected by Ethiopia.
The alarming situation in the Ogaden region, where trade and humanitarian embargos, accompanied by severe repression and human rights violations, including systematic rape, are severely affecting the population, was raised by Julie Ward, Ana Gomes, Josef Weidenholzer and Jordi Sebastiá. Well informed about the dynamics in the Horn of Africa, they warned that the situation in Ethiopia is all but stable; on the contrary the Ethiopian Government’s repressive policies are providing fertile ground for extremists to operate on.
Moreover, many of the interventions echoed that the EU and its Member States should be bolder in conditioning development funds to Ethiopia on the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Also highlighted was the importance of carefully monitoring these funds and making sure that they are actually used for development projects, rather than to finance crackdown on dissidents and political opposition movements. In this context, it was recommended that the EU issue a statement ahead of the elections, or immediately after, stating clearly that it does not consider these elections a manifestation of democracy.
Another line of argument was maintained by MEPs Louis Michel (ALDE), James Carver (EFDD), Marie-Christine Arnautu (non-attached) and Steeve Briois (non-attached), who argued that although the EU should encourage Ethiopia to adhere to international human rights standards, the first priorities should be to keep a good relationship with the government and put even more emphasis of the question of regional stability.
Following the heated debate the ball was passed back to the Commission for the HR/VP’s response: whereas the EU will continue to engage in development efforts, it will also work towards strengthening human rights, and deepen its engagement to promote long-term democratisation in Ethiopia. This seemingly vague approach shows that the EU is currently facing a moral dilemma with regards to Ethiopia, whereby the economic and security interests at stake allow for a rather relaxed attitude towards Ethiopia even, if it is clear that the latter does not adhere to the Union’s core values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights, including minority rights.
Nevertheless, the announcement made during the Plenary session of HR/VP Mogherini’s intention to travel to Ethiopia in the near future could be seen as an opportunity for the EU to take a firmer stance on the human rights dimension of its relations with Ethiopia under the Cotonou Agreement, and to pressure for the embargo to be lifted and for international NGOs and journalists to be allowed access to the Ogaden region. Although it might be economically beneficial for the EU to maintain its soft approach to Ethiopia in the short term, UNPO firmly holds that the only way to achieve long-term stability and prosperity is through the unconditional fulfilment of the human rights of all Ethiopians, including the Ogaden and Oromo people.
You can access the list of speakers and the video of their statement on the European Parliament's website (the discussion on the situation in Ethiopia started at 17:10).
Photo courtesy of Gerry Balding@flickr