8th Jul 2020

EU: Eritrea regime taking money is 'improved relations'

  • The EU is financing heavy machinery for highway construction in Eritrea (Photo: European Union)

After a 25-year presence in Eritrea's capital city, the European Union says a recent request by its ruling dictator for millions to tackle the pandemic is a sign of improved relations.

The comments made by Lothar Jaschke, an official within the EU's foreign policy branch EEAS, follows EU-funded procurement projects where forced labour is used to help build a major highway linking Ethiopia to the Eritrean port of Massawa.

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"When Covid came to Eritrea the leader turned to the European Union and asked for support, forgetting the proud policy of self-sufficiency and rejecting humanitarian aid from the past," Jaschke told MEPs on Monday (15 June).

"This request can be seen as a sign of improved bilateral relations," he said, noting the issue of human rights are also now part of the discussions with the regime.

But around 20 percent of EU trade and some 10 percent of the world's crude oil also passes daily through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait off Eritrea's coast, a choke point connecting the Arabian sea with Red Sea.

And the country is ruled as a totalitarian dictatorship by the rebel-leader-turned-president, Isaias Afwerki.

Afwerki maintains close ties to the Saudis and Emirates, seen as strategic competitors to the EU's interest in the region. China also has a strong foothold.

But Afwerki has so far refused to dismantle the mandatory national service programme despite a shaky 2018 ceasefire with Ethiopia.

The United Nations has described the service as "tantamount to slavery."

Jaschke's comment also follows the 10 June launch of the second phase of an EU-funded procurement project to buy construction equipment for the highway works.

The money is taken out of the much larger European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, set up in 2015 explicitly in part to help curb migration towards Europe.

Well over 100,000 Eritrean asylum applications have been filed in the EU since 2015, with many fleeing the country because of its national service.

The Eritrean saga has triggered a raft of criticism from human right campaigners with the EU being sued in a Dutch court for helping bankroll the roadworks.

The EU says it has organised, with the Eritrean authorities, at least five field visits to inspect the works.

But around 70 percent of the €125m in EU funds to the country has already been contracted.

Money diverted away from roadworks

It recently decided to finance new projects worth €19.7m it says will promote jobs, human rights and help Eritrea's judicial administration.

"The fact that the government has accepted this package is an illustration that it is keen to maintain its engagement with the EU," said Hans Stausboll, a senior official within the European Commission's development aid branch.

None of the €19.7 is slated for the roadworks, said Stausboll. And another €33m, initially earmarked for Eritrea, will now also go to Sudan instead.

He said the EU will also revisit its so-called dual track approach with Eritrea before launching any more additional programmes.

The EU describes the approach as one that marries "robust political dialogue" with investment in "pragmatic development cooperation".

Michèle Rivasi, a French Green MEP who is active on the file, says the EU's approach has in fact failed to deliver.

"Instead of improving, the situation has worsened in Eritrea, according to the new UN report dated May 11, 2020," she said, in an emailed statement.

The report found, among other things, the regime had forced the closure of some 22 health clinics run by the Catholic Church.

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