Bargaining for peace: The EU’s options in Eritrea

The European Union (EU) states that it looks for ways to facilitate improvements in human rights, governance and economics in Eritrea through its development aid. The fundamental problem, however, is that the Eritrean authorities seem to show no interest in these improvements and that it actively persecuted people in its own country that have demanded these improvements. The attempts from the EU to demand structural changes from the Eritrean regime have so far been unsuccessful, mostly due to its lack of bargaining power. On 25 June several members of the German Bundestag and human rights experts discussed the relation between the EU and Eritrea in a public intergroup zoom discussion; during this discussion some of these alternatives were debated. The Zoom discussion was moderated  by Bundestag member Kathrin Vogler, representative of Die Linke (the left), and Rudi Friedrich of Connection e.V., which provides international support for conscientious objectors and deserters.

Eritrea’s powerful bargaining tool: monopoly

The Eritrean regime is in a relatively powerful bargaining position because it has monopolized power in Eritrea. The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is the only state party allowed and after decades of detention of political opponents and critics there is no opposition with which the EU might cooperate. In 2001, 2013 and 2018 there were calls from many high profile politicians to release political prisoners, implement the 1997 constitution and reform the country. Hundreds of people, including the high profile politicians, were arrested in violent crackdowns and have been detained incommunicado without a trial ever since. In order to work in Eritrea the EU has to work with the PFDJ, and it is in the PFDJ’s interest that EU projects do not undermine their political monopoly.

According to the Director General of the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans, Mulueberhan Temelso, this makes the EU road project so problematic because it will only fund the Eritrean regime: “the project does not improve the situation of the population in Eritrea in any way. The project is in the hands of the Red Sea Trading Corporation, which is under the control of the sole ruling party in Eritrea. The project promotes forced labour through the use of national service conscripts and strengthens the Eritrean regime.” This is not just limited to the European road project, the funds for other EU and UN projects earmarked to return of Eritrean diaspora members, good governance and economic growth “flow more or less directly to the dictatorial regime of Afewerki,” said Kathrin Vogler during the discussion. The Eritrean regime has no checks and balances when it comes to fiscal issues, government spending and savings. The last last public budget was published in 2000. The World Bank has identified Eritrea as a country where humanitarian aid is associated with offshore tax havens and illegal activities of this nature in their February 2020 report.

Eritrea’s powerful bargaining tool: defining the terms of aid

Eritrea’s regime accepts aid and projects, but only on their terms, which makes the EU’s philosophy of facilitating good governance hollow. As researcher Klara Smits said during the discussions, “there is a long history in the EU of supporting the Eritrean regime through aid […] it has been shown repeatedly that the regime under Isayas Afewerki is unwilling to comply with basic benchmarks on human rights.” Eritrea is willing to walk away from the table, as it did in the first stages of the road project when the EU demanded that the forced labor from national conscripts would not be used. Eritrea has also closed 22 catholic hospitals and health clinics as well as 7 catholic schools because the Eritrea’s Catholic bishop called for justice and reform. Eritrea has also made compromising demands from aid workers and organizations and has refused COVID-19 aid despite the country’s dire need for assistance.  With its record to walk away from the table and breaking of verbal promises, the Eritrean regime has set the precedent to international actors that they make the rules when it comes to dealing within Eritrea, and that the political monopoly will not be compromised in favor of funds, economic development or the lives of Eritreans.

European bargaining power

European bargaining power in comparison can be defined as weak. Firstly because it does not have a monopoly in its relations with Eritrea, as many international actors like China and the United Emirate States are involved in Eritrea due to its strategic position; and secondly because the Eritrean regime does not depend on the EU for its survival. Additionally, the EU has shown a lack of  consistency when it comes to human rights issues in Eritrea. After the 2001 crackdown, European nations cut their ties with the Eritrean regime out of protest, demanding that political prisoners would be released. When this did not happen, the European nations, against their initial threat, reopened relations after the passing of several years. In addition, while claiming that human rights are fundamental, the EU has accepted that forced labor will be used in a project they fund. The EU high representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell claimed that aid and investments in Eritrea are justified because “in Eritrea, things have got better but not as much as they should have.” This statement is contradicted by UN Special Rapporteur Daniela Kravetz, who found no improvements in any of the five benchmarks that were set to measure concrete change on the ground.

Increase bargaining position: rights-based approach

In order to contribute to political improvements in Eritrea, the EU has to find a way to increase its bargaining power. At the moment Eritrea holds all the chips, despite decades of attempts at both sanctions and cooperation from the EU and UN; it has steadily kept detaining critics, journalists, conscientious objectors and (religious) minorities while refusing to allow projects that did not meet their demands. Without any political improvements, the Eritrean regime still received millions in aid and investment projects. In order to increase its bargaining position the EU has to make human rights criteria the main priority. As Dr. Awet Kessete from the Eritrean Association for Democracy, Culture and Learning from Each Other stated: “the projects must serve to improve the living conditions of the population, it must be excluded that the funds serve to enhance the regime, humane working conditions and the living interests of the population must be secured and in all projects the participation of the population must also be ensured.” Increasing its bargaining through a rights-based approach might not work in the short term due to the history of cooperation between Eritrea and the EU, where a place at the table has been the EU’s main aim.

Increase bargaining position: international cooperation

Another way with which the EU could increase its bargaining power is by strengthening its voice though international cooperation. Germany is in a unique position to facilitate this, according to member of the German Bundestag Daniela de Ridder, because of  its double position as a temporary member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and the EU Council Presidency, which it has assumed on July 1st. It can bring more international attention and foster a diplomatic solution through cooperation with the UN, African Union and International Criminal Court. Cooperating with the Eritrean Diaspora is also a viable option stated Dr. Awet Kessete from the Eritrean Association for Democracy, Culture and Learning from Each Other during the discussion.

In the future 

From June 30 until July 21, the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) is taking place. Among other issues, the Council will discuss the human rights situation in Eritrea and the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz. The states leading the mandate renewal resolution are Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Under mounting criticism the European Commission has stated that it declined the Eritrean government’s request for more funds for road works in the country, opting to send €30 million originally reserved for Eritrea to Sudan instead. Despite this new ‘no more roads approach’ the €80 million that was committed to the project will remain in place and the €60 million for the second phase of the project signed on the 10th of June 2020 has also not been withdrawn. A renewed mandate for Eritrea backed by international attention, cooperation and willpower to prioritize demands for political improvement could ultimately strengthen the bargaining power needed to facilitate change.