The EU and its “no more roads approach” in Eritrea

On June 15, the European Parliament Committee on Development (DEVE) held a hearing in the European Parliament (EP) on the European Union’s development cooperation with Eritrea and in particular the road rehabilitation project that is carried out with the help of national service labour, which is widely defined as forced labour. The hearing included a change of views between the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO), the Europe External Action Service (EEAS) and members of the committee on progress and the possibilities on getting results on the very difficult situation in Eritrea. The ‘no more roads’ decision can be seen as the most important outcome.

No more roads

From the proposed package, it is clear that the European Commission (EC) strives to a “no more roads approach”. In light of this, the EC rejected Eritrea’s request for €50 million for the road building and sent €30 million originally reserved for Eritrea to Sudan instead. However, the €80 million that was already committed to road building in Eritrea through phase 1 and 2 will remain in place. It is unclear why the EC did not withdraw the second phase funding of  €60 million as part of its commitment to no longer fund road building in Eritrea, as the contract had only been signed on the 10th of June 2020, the Commission revealed.

Hans Stausboll, Head of Unit Eastern Africa, Horn of Africa at the DEVCO, additionally explained 4 new proposed actions for Eritrea worth €19.7 million.

Stausboll stresses that “[t]he fact that the government has accepted this package is an illustration that it is keen to maintain its engagement with the EU”. In addition, the EC told the Eritrean government that the 4 actions will be the last under the current multi-annual financial framework (MFF) which runs to the end of 2020. The proposed package targets soft areas and consists of:

€5 million to support the implementation of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to be implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

€5 million to support diaspora engagement in support of national development to be implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

€5 million to enhance efficiency of the judiciary administration in Eritrea through the partnership framework with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

€4.6 million for promotion of the economic growth, jobs and public finance management implemented by the UNDP.

The EC will make an evaluation of the dual track approach they implement towards Eritrea before the next MFF 2021-2027 starts. The dual track approach aims to combine aid with human rights dialogue, but critics argue such changes have not reflected in actual progress for Eritrean people. Stausboll assured that they will “not take any operational decisions before we have a thorough evaluation of our engagement with Eritrea”. The outcome will define the EU’s policy towards Eritrea in the future.

Rivasi’s criticism

Member of the European Parliament Michele Rivasi from The Greens in the EP was very disappointed with the statements from DEVCO and the EEAS.

Rivasi focused on the recent report from the UN Special Rapporteur that showed no progress or improvement in the human rights situation in Eritrea. In this context she asked various questions criticizing the EU’s approach. She asks how the EU can justify “the statements according to which positive measures have been taken by the Eritrean government in terms of national service”. Rivasi questions the dual track approach which, she believes, is actually benefiting the Eritrean government and favouring the dictatorship in the country.

Rivasi concludes by stating that what is done by the EU is “extremely worrying for democracy and EU values”.

EU versus China and Saudi Arabia

Lothar Jaschke, the Head of Political Press and Information Section at the EEAS, stated that the recent request for millions of euros made by Eritrea to fight COVID-19 is a sign of improved bilateral relations between Eritrea and the EU. Furthermore, Jaschke believes that taboo topics – such as human rights violations – are discussed more frequently and “have entered the mainstream of our political dialogue and bilateral relations”.

Jaschke stresses the importance of being “part of the game” to stand a chance to be heard on sensitive issues. However, the statement “I don’t think we have an interest to leave it all to China and Saudi Arabia” shows that the aid is solely to benefit the bilateral relationship between Eritrea and the EU, as a part of the EU’s strategic interest in the region, and not in the interest of the Eritrean population, according to Habte Hagos, Chairman of Eritrea Focus.