EU says no more money to Eritrea

17 June 2020

Eritrea Focus

EU says no more money to Eritrea

By Habte Hagos

On Monday, 15 June 2020, the European Union (EU) at the meeting of the Committee on Development (DEVE) on the EU’s development cooperation with Eritrea (state of play and the EU’s policy objectives) meeting, declined the Eritrean government’s request for €50 million for more road works in the country. The EU is also sending €30 million originally reserved for Eritrea to Sudan instead.

Disappointingly, however, and despite the appalling human rights abuses in Eritrea, the EU has provided or has committed the following funding allocations to the country over the last couple of months:

  • €6.6 million was allocated in the middle of April. This was a ring-fenced allocation through WHO specifically for COVID-19. This aid was apparently given at the request of the “self-reliance” champion president of the country and despite him rejecting COVID-19 Personal Protection Equipment shipments and aid from various countries.
  • €19.7 million for 4 new projects to be implemented by UNDP (2 projects), IOM and UNODC.
  • €5 million to support the implementation of the UPR by the UNDP. The aim here is to increase capacity to follow up on UPR recommendations;
  • €5 million to support diaspora engagement in support of national development to be implemented by the IOM. The aim here seems to be for the temporary and voluntary return of Eritrean diaspora members to assist in socio-economic development in Eritrea. This funding seems to be specifically targeted towards PFDJ members in diaspora. The EU knows full well the destiny of any Eritrean justice seeker returning to Eritrea whilst the ruthless regime is still in Asmara. Clearly, that has not crossed the mind of EU technocrats on this occasion because it does not suit their interest;
  • €5 million for judiciary administration. Apparently to support and enhance efficiency of the judiciary administration in the country through the partnership framework with UNODC. Yes, improving a judiciary system where none exist. Makes you wonder in which planet these EU technocrats live; and
  • €4.7 million for promotion of economic growth, jobs and public finance management to be implemented by UNDP. The aim of this project is to enhance capacities of national institutions involved in economic governance. I would describe this as a subsidy for the national service programme. The regime in Asmara can enslave more youth and for longer period so it stops them from coming to Europe.

The above four projects funding has apparently been accepted by the “self-reliant” regime in Asmara but are yet to be rubber stamped by EU member states. 

What is incredibly difficult to fathom with these funding to Eritrea is the incredible duplicity of the EU. It is mind boggling for the EU to work on the hypothesis that “at the very end we don’t like it [Eritrea], we cannot change it but let’s throw millions of Euros at it”. But again the funding to Eritrea at the end of the day, is in the interest of the EU; to stem the flow of Eritrean refugees to the EU and more crucially, and as one of the officials said at the end of the meeting “I don’t think we have an interest to leave it all to China and Saudi Arabia”. Alas the EU sees Eritrea for sale to the highest bidder. And why shouldn’t they?

Maybe it is not only Isaias that should be brought to the ICC but also the EU technocrats too because without their money he may not be able to commit crimes against humanity.

A rough translation of the meeting notes inserted below:

Transcription of the meeting of the Committee on Development (DEVE) on the EU’s development cooperation with Eritrea: state of play and the EU’s policy objectives

(Exchange of views with the Commission and the EEAS)

15 June 2020

Full meeting can be viewed via this link.

Opening remarks by the Chair, T. Tobe:

The EU relations with Eritrea are challenging. It’s development cooperation support has been subject of intense debates in our Parliament and DEVE committee. Most recently in February, we have discussed with the UNOPS, HRW, the Commission and EEAS. As a result of massive human rights violations and a strong isolation tendencies from the Eritrean government, cooperation was suspended for many years. At the centre of the development cooperation is the road rehabilitation project which aims to rebuild road from the border with Ethiopia to its’ Read Sea coast. After a brief reopening the border with Ethiopia was closed again. If the border is again reopen the road will provide a landlocked Ethiopia with a valuable connection to the sea. The road rehabilitation project is being carried out with the help of the national service labour. Let us start by hearing the Commission and EEAS how this work is going and what progress, if any there is now on the human rights track. We would be interested in your assessment on the ongoing dual-track approach and how you view the possibilities of getting results on the very difficult situation. Thank you to the Commission for engaging with us today and I give floor to Han Stausboll.

Hans Stausboll, Head of Unit on Eastern Africa, Horn of Africa at DG DEVCO: 

Thanks you, it is an honour to be here today and continue conversation with this committee that started in February 2020. You have also seen that our Director General informed the DEVE Committee in the middle of April about specific COVID-19 action in Eritrea where we are providing €6.6 million through WHO to support the government its in response to pandemic. Lhotar from EEAS will cover the political part and I will focus on the cooperation side. Since the launch of the dual-track approach we have committed €125 million for Eritrea. All the funds we are providing serves to provide opportunities and livelihoods of the people of Eritrea. All projects are now implemented and closely monitored by the UN. Within the strategic cooperation framework signed between UN and Eritrea covering period 2017 – 2021. There are no blind checks or transfer funds to the government of Eritrea without our sight counter the allegations that you would have seen in media articles. This is easily traceable from the contracts that the EU signed with the UN implementing partners – UNOPS, UNDP etc. On the road project as it has been referred to, and it is indeed the biggest action we have, the objective is to rehabilitate the main road in order to reinforce the peace agreement and economic integration between Ethiopia and Eritrea. As we have said previously, this is a joint request we have received from the two governments. It will help to create economic opportunities, and it will help Ethiopia to break its’ isolation of Ethiopia and get the access to the Sea.

The project is not road construction project. We are procuring equipment that is indeed being made available to the Eritrean authorities. But we are not directly involved in road construction. Activities under the phase 1, which was €20 million action, are almost completed and it’s progressing in line with the EU and UN standards for project and financial management. 4 procurements contracts with suppliers – 3 with European based and 1 international supplier were authorised for procurement of construction equipment. Plans were completed by November 2019 and delivery started in late 2019 and continues. The contract for the second phase has been signed on 10th of June. The EU delegation together with the UNOPS follows up the implementation regularly, including several field visits. To date, we had carried out 5 missions. Inspection of the equipment supplied are also conducted. A tripartite dialogue between EU, UNOPS and Government also ensures close monitoring and continues dialogue. All that without hiding implicit limitations faced when working in Eritrea. Field visits are organized with Eritrean authorities and access to information is limited. We are keen to facilitate the joined mission to Eritrea by the representatives from the Budget committee and DEVE committee. And we assure that this will give you a unique opportunity to have better understanding of the country and our engagement there.

On the link to the national service. Among the people employed by the government on the road construction project by construction companies through cash-for-work schemes, there are individuals belonging to national service as is the case for all areas of economic and social sectors in Eritrea. Reform of the national service can only be done gradually. And we cannot pretend that the EU can change workers’ conditions in Eritrea through the development projects we have now. Within the limits of the EU funded procurement project, a space has been secured for the dialogue with the government about the labour conditions and also to impact on then possibly through the provisions of health and security equipment for workers, as a preliminary step. The government continues to inform us but also publicly, about generalized increase of salaries for people serving under the national service. And have also recently gave indications that demobilisation is being considered. These were reconfirmed few days ago. Within the cooperation track there is much more than procurement for road rehabilitation. Decisions within €125 million I referred to have been adopted to support job creation in agriculture, an action to reinforce statistic for economic governance, and a project on strengthening capacities of health services to respond to the crisis with WHO. Contracting is progressing and we have contracted 70% of funds that have been committed.

Just last week, my Director General informed the Chair of the DEVE committee, I apologize it came so late, about our intentions. We have proposed to our member states 4 new actions for Eritrea for total amount of €19.7 million. The proposed pack is a set of actions which build on recent exchanges with the European Parliament, EU member states, and it represent the best compromise to accommodate the different views expressed by EU member states but also views expressed by the EP notably on the 2018 EDF discharge procedure. We have also conclusions of [the meeting] 7th May, which confirmed that the member states are globally in favour to continue with the dual approach. The package that is on the table now, firstly I would like to emphasize that we listen very carefully to the Parliament – no more roads. It was very clear request from you and obviously we took that very seriously despite the fact that the government have one major priority and that is roads. The package targets soft areas and it consists of four main elements: €5 million to support the implementation of the UPR to be implemented by the UNDP; €5 million to support diaspora engagement in support of national development to be implemented by IOM; support to enhance efficiency of the judiciary administration in Eritrea through the partnership framework with UNODC; 4.7 million for promotion of the economic growth, jobs and public finance management implemented by UNDP. The fact that the government has accepted this package is an illustration that it is keen to maintain its engagement with the EU. We have also informed the government that this package will be the last under the current MFF which means a reduction of a amount for Eritrea by €30 million. Our intention is to transfer that amount to Sudan to support the positive political transition we see there.

It is important to recall that the Trust fund is not only activity that we have there and we are also using our lines to promote within the possibilities engagement with civil society and support for human rights within Eritrea.

Looking to the next MFF 2021-2027 – this was very clear request from our member states, we have been invited to make an evaluation of the dual track approach before the next programming cycle starts. We will not take any operational decisions before we have a thorough evaluation of our engagement with Eritrea and the dual approach. The outcome of the evaluation will orient the EU’s policy towards the country and will obviously be giving us the guidance for the upcoming programming. My Director General to the Chair of this Committee has committed to keep the EP closely informed about the evaluation that should start before the end of this month. With that, whatever form our engagement with Eritrea will take the overall objective is obviously to ensure that the EU can stay engaged in this crucial country and crucial region. Strategic patience is in our opinion is the best recipe for engaging with Eritrea and facilitating reform of the country.

Lothar Jaschke, EEAS:

Dear members, it is honour to be present here today and follow up on the exchange that we had in February. On Eritrea – the EU has strategic interest in promoting stable, prosperous and secure Horn of Africa which gets increasingly integrated provides maritime security and becomes reliable partner for  the EU. We have interest to offer its youth perspective to become resilient to extremist ideologies. Eritrea will remain to be a key component of peace prosperity and stability in the Horn of Africa with a strategic location. Over the past year Asmara improved its relations with Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan and maintain close relations with Saudis and Emiratis. In December 2019 it signed the Red Sea Charter. It has also contributed to develop a trilateral cooperation with Mogadishu and Addis. Concerning Ethiopia, yes, we would like to see the peace agreement to be implemented much faster. And the border be reopened. But first, Eritrea needs to build up its economic base which is very low and that is also through our cooperation. Moreover, internal tensions between Ethiopian federal authorities and Tigray authorities should be mitigated in order to make progress on joint border commission. The EU is present in Asmara since 1995, promoting political engagement and development cooperation. Following the 2018 peace declaration, and in support to the peace process of two arch rivals, the EU decided to put engagement with Eritrea on a new dual-track approach. The idea is to pursue a robust political dialogue in view of promoting political reforms and in parallel, not as a condition, to invest in pragmatic development cooperation, which promotes regional integration, human rights, jobs and economic opportunities. This approach has been confirmed two times by the member states, last time on 7 May.

We consider this approach the best chance to pursue our key objective, which is to ensure Eritrea contributes to advancing our objectives in the region, to bring tangible objectives to Eritrea’s population, to increase our leverage to impact on reforms, to promote regional integration, and to build better positions for the EU in the future. And as you know, the future starts now.

While it is true that the Eritrean regime did not carried out the reforms that we wanted to see, the dual approach increased engagement opportunities and promoted Government to take more open, constructive attitude towards the EU. It has improved bilateral relations. Two examples are – when COVID-19 came to Eritrea, the leader turned to the EU asking for support forgetting about proud policy of self-sufficiency and rejecting humanitarian aid from the past. This can be seen as improvement in bilateral relations. Secondly, taboo issues, for example human rights violations are now discussed regularly and have entered the mainstream of our political dialogue and bilateral relations. When in Asmara, a presidential advisor told me, we want to better understand EU positions through the political dialogue that we have with you. And on human rights be assured, that we will address issues consistently, critically and constructively and encourage improvements and if they happen we will welcome them. We welcome Eritrea’s participation in the UPR process. It is quite remarkable that only high official with human rights in his title is the EU special representative Eamon Gilmore, who has been in Asmara and who has long standing invitation to Eritrea. This approach of constructive and robust engagement allows us to secure the gains and achieve through our dialogue while remain firm on our political objectives. We have made it clear to Asmara that we appreciate new possibilities to engage but also that the dual track approach is not a one-way street ant that it needs to be nurtured by strong drive for reforms in Eritrea and important progress on human rights. In engaging with Eritrea, we face criticism we respond to criticism and debunk false allegations. You have seen articles and statements against the EU engagement in Eritrea, but they do not suggest any constructive alternative. It is only through this constructive engagement and trust building however uncomfortable this is, that we stand a chance to be heard on sensitive issues. It is clear that we cannot expect miracles, and that we need to be patient and realistic. But we need to be part of the game and not be left out of it. This engagement would reduce our leverage and make it harder to come back. And we would have no chance to pursue our objectives when it comes to strengthening the rule of law, democracy, human rights and improving the wellbeing of Eritreans. Within the population and the government Europe is considered an attractive alternative to over dependence vis a vis Saudi Arabia and China. EU is the best place and help best positions for the future. Looking ahead, another meeting of the political dialogue is planned whenever the COVID restrictions allow it and discussion on long awaited Eritrean plan on human rights which is the action plan in implementing UPR recommendations. A visit of this committee is scheduled in the first week of November. This is welcomed event for more interaction and engagement. This is expression of interest that I know Eritrean people hugely appreciate.

Questions & Comments from the DEVE members

Gyorgy  Holvenyi:

We have to pay attention to shrinking space of religious freedom in Eritrea. Authorities closed down almost 30 catholic health facilities and expelled patients receiving treatments without compensations. This is not a religious act it is important to note that many of the facilities were in the rural areas were there are no alternative medical services. Do you know about this? What do you think about this? The UN HRC also addressed the issue in its report.

  1. Bullmann, S&D:

I heard in every sentence balance for reasonable approach. This is something we have to appreciate. But please, you have to understand that the very concrete accusation is in this specific Eritrean case that the EU’s money is being used to make use of forced labour in this road project and the conditions that are hardly justifiable. This is the very concrete issue. And perhaps we could come back to this issue. I very well understand that if you say it’s not in our command. At the very end we don’t like it but we cannot change it. But it should then be more clear and we should talk about – do we really not have any trigger points to change the situation of these workers, in a way of dialogue with Eritrean authorities, involved partners, international organisations and what would you say if these kinds of attempts have already taken place is the understanding of the other side? Is there willingness of the Eritrean authorities to accept the codes of values that we would present here or is there a major resistance? We have to be clear about these issues. Especially if at the end we would like to strike a fair balance of what we are doing or not doing.

  1. Goerens, Renew:

The Commission representative just told us that they are going to carry out the evaluation. Can we get the terms of reference for the evaluation and criteria that will have to be respected by Eritrea?

  1. Bilde, :

I think we are all paying careful attention to the national service and the impact that it has on project supported by the EU in this country. I had asked the Commission a written question about motorway between Adi-Guadad and Agordat and cooperation with Chinese companies as we heard that the project supported by China in Africa do not resect the social standards required. And I wonder if you are going to find out about the working conditions on those sites? And to find out if the national services are making contributions. Eritrea has also adopted ILO convention on the worst forms of child labour – do you have any idea on the progress that has been made since then? Because the American labour department noted the absence of efforts of the country in that area.

And my last question is on religious freedom. We know that church is having issues since 2007 and international press has mentioned persecution of the catholic church. Do you have any information on those key issues?

Michele Rivasi, Greens:

We have to admit, that I was rather disappointed what the commission had to say here. We’ve been asking since February, about financing that goes to the government and you are still telling us the same thing. So I’d like to give a couple of pieces of information that shows that this EU money has been poorly utilized and indeed puts us in a difficult situation. Most recent report of from the UN special rapporteur which came out on 11 May on 5 criteria to measure progress in Eritrea. The rapporteur says that there has been no progress made up to the date of May 2020. The rapporteur identifies four concrete measures that could easily be taken by the Eritrean regime to show progress in transformation of the national service, a)  stopping the forced roundups; b) separate the education system from the national service conscription; c) implementing an independent system to monitor and follow up on violence and abuse in the national service; and d) stop forced labour and child labour in the national service. None of these measure has been taken during these times.

I have two questions –How does the EU believe it continues saying that its dual approach is bearing fruit and what sorts of results in terms of human rights are we seeing for the population on the ground? In this context how does the EU justifies the statements according to which positives measures have been taken by the Eritrean government in terms of the national service? How can the EU justify in the light of this information that conscripts under the national service set up are being used in the motorway project – the most important project of the EU. In which the EU is providing money to companies directly under Eritrean regime’s control.

And finally, in the report from February 2020 from the World Bank, in which the WB has identified Eritrea as a country where humanitarian aid is associated with offshore tax havens and illegal activities of this nature. Given the lack of financial transparency in Eritrea, how can that EU guarantee that the EU’s taxpayers’ money is not being used to enrich Eritrean elite? Are you sure that 80 million is helping the population and not the government?

In the light of this information, which shows that this EU approach is not helping an improvement on the ground at all, and you have said that yourself, what does the EU intend to do under MFF 2021-27? Are you going to continue with this dual track approach which is actually benefiting the Eritrean government? Because through this policy in staying in Eritrea you actually favouring the dictatorship there. I think what has been done is extremely worrying for democracy and EU values. I would like some answers to my questions. 


Hans Stausboll:

On the question of balance and trigger points – we do believe that we certain trigger points, we have dialogue on national service but it is correct that if you walk to Eritrea and say – unless you do A,B,C we will walk away – that approach simply does not work in Eritrea. And this is a tricky issue that we need to get along. I said that government continues to confirm that they are prepared to reform the national service as soon as the conditions allow. They say there are two conditions there must be jobs. There are no jobs currently. If they abolish the national service they have no other opportunities. And don’t forget that majority of the people in the national service get a salary that is bigger that the most ministers in Eritrean government get today. Yes, we do believe that there is willingness involved.

The question on evaluation – I need to check with my authorities, but I believe we can share the reference for the evaluation. Our intention is to ask an institute to make an assessment we are doing this with the member states now.

Obviously, I am disappointed that Mrs Rivasi is disappointed. I do think that we are changing our approach. We have listened very carefully to the discussion concerning the discharge. The Government has the expectation that they will receive 50 million more for the roads but we have said no. And programs that are being put in front of our member states right now is indeed targeting the soft areas, human rights, economic governance etc. We are not here to support the government we are here to support the people of Eritrea in the best possible way we can do. We have seen the report of the special rapporteur and we do agree that we have never pretended that there is major progress. We continue to say that engagement is better than disengagement. We have change directions of the programs that we are supporting now. And before we decide on the next MFF programming we want to have serious evaluation which will be also discussed with the Parliament. There are no money given to the government. Money stays within the UN and we are providing expertise and equipment. So the notion that there is corruption and that the EU’s money disappear in the government’s hands are not correct. We continue to monitor very closely everything is implemented by the UN on the basis of their criteria and their procedure. Obviously it is political appreciation whether you want to stay engaged in Eritrea or not. We continue to believe that this is the best possible within the limitations that we have to operate on in Eritrea.

Lothar Jaschke, EEAS:

Disappointingly, the number of Catholic health facilities have been closed. Some of them have reopened, some not. Overall healthcare situation has not improved by this. This could be seen as a reaction to statements by the Catholic Church that did not go well by the regime. This is event that we are concerned with that we have told the regime in the political dialogue that they should reconsider this decision and that it might not have been good move. The strength is that at least there is a political dialogue where we can address issues. The same goes for human rights. We have continuously encouraged them to participate in the UPR. Now they have accepted 131 recommendations including free speech, economic and social rights. They also told us that they will accept the visits of the UN of special mandate holders. Let’s see but that is positive move. I think this stronger openness and little shift in policy is paying off. It is certainly about the future. The EU is seen as an attractive alternative as a positive force. I don’t think we have an interest to leave it all to China and Saudi Arabia.

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