EU-Ethiopia diplomacy: an age-long conundrum

Ambassador Teshome Toga is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ethiopia to the EU Institutions, the Benelux and Baltic countries. Prior to his assignment to the post, Teshome was the Speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representatives for a term of five years. He also served as minister in the now defunct Ministry of Youth and Sports and Culture. Teshome was in town this week for the 26 th African Union (AU) Heads of State Summit and Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter caught up with him at the AU headquarters to discuss issues related to diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and the European Union (EU)focusing on the recent draft motion that was presented to the EU Parliament and the controversy surrounding the draft resolution. Excerpts:

The Reporter: What are the salient features and main pillars of the diplomatic relationship between Ethiopia and the European Union?

Ambassador Teshome Toga: The relation between Ethiopian and the EU is celebrating its 40th-year anniversary this year; we celebrated the anniversary here last October. The basic pillars of the relation are evolving from time to time. Like any other member country in the African Pacific and Caribbean group, the relation between Ethiopia and the Union is governed by the Cotonou agreement. Our relation is multi-faceted; the first pillar is the support that EU extends to Ethiopia’s effort in ensuring and promoting peace, democracy and development internally. This support is channeled through the European Development Fund. Apart from this, there is also the support that comes from the 28 EU member states. Therefore, the Union and the member states play a crucial role in supporting Ethiopia’s effort in relation to poverty reduction, development, democracy and peace and stability. Within the same framework, according to article 8 of the Cotonou agreement, there is also a political dialogue on the process of building democratic system in the country. Another pillar is Ethiopia’s foreign relation policy, particularly in the context of the Horn of Africa and the African continent as a whole as well as Ethiopia’s role in peacekeeping missions. although Ethiopia’s engagement in such activities is basically guided by the national interest of the country, by the same token, the Union also has its own interest in this regard and this is the one area where we converge. The third pillar is within the international political realm. In this regard, the relation focuses on two major areas. The first is that we are working together with the Union in fighting terrorism globally. The other is working together in the areas of global climate change agendas; the Union has more or less similar stand with Africa in this regard. Ethiopia takes the climate change agenda seriously; as an issue which affects its national interest and plays a significant role in the negotiations. In addition to this, previously, Ethiopia was vocal about the global climate change issue and was the spokesperson of  the continent. This is also another pillar.

 

The relation between Ethiopia and the EU is celebrating its 40 th-year anniversary. Generally speaking, how do you describe the evolution of the relationship and what is its current status?

The current status of the relationship between the two can be said to be at its highest level of partnership. The manifestation of this evolution is Prime Minister Hailemamriam Dessalegn’s visit to the EU, which was his first official visit, right after he became PM of Ethiopia. This did not happen by chance; Ethiopia is working with the Union in  areas of trade, investment, transfer of technology and other social sectors. Therefore his visit was aimed at solidifying the relation and the partnership. Apart from that, 40 percent of Ethiopian products and commodities are exported to Europe. Europe is one of our strongest partners in trade. The Union is also the biggest source of investment and tourists to our nation, although the investment levels have not attained levels we want them to attain. Another thing that should be raised here is that last October, the head of the Commission of the Foreign Relations and Security of the EU visited Ethiopia and sealed an agreement on the promotion of the relation to another higher level. Subsequently, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom (PhD) travelled to Brussels for a two-day official visit earlier in January, and met and discussed with high-ranking officials of the Union over the issues of how to promote the relationship. Accordingly, the two reached an agreement to scale up the current relation by engaging in a discussion through the head of the delegates of EU and the ambassadors of the EU based in Ethiopia and officials of the Ethiopia government. However, following this strategic partnership agreement, the discussion onwards will be conducted between Ethiopian officials and ministers from the Union. The Foreign Relation Office of the EU has also approved the agreement and we are going to sign the document soon. The Union fully recognizes Ethiopia’s role in promoting peace and stability in the region and in the continent as a whole. The EU has partnership of this scale and significance only with a few countries in Africa namely Angola and Nigeria making Ethiopia the third country in the continent. However, what makes Ethiopia’s case different is that the relationship with Angola and Nigeria mainly focus on oil and economy interests. And this is a clear proof that the relationship between Ethiopia and the Union has grown to the highest level. With regard to our discussion and engagement, previously, it was based on article 8 of the Cotonou agreement and was mainly focused on the agendas of democracy, human right, freedom of the press and the political landscape. Most of the time, the ambassadors residing in Addis Ababa raised issues related to the aforementioned agendas and we were explaining to them our policy and stand in this regard. However, in our continued discussion, these areas will only be one aspect of engagement while we work on showing improvement on those agendas. So, this agreement is expected to take the ties the newest and highest level. Currently, the issue of migration is one of the major agenda topics for European countries; and it is also another area where Ethiopia is doing a lot by providing shelter to more than 750,000 refugees who might have migrated to Europe otherwise. Accordingly, the Union recognizes Ethiopia’s role in accepting and sheltering refugees and we are working together. Ethiopia is also the second country in Africa in signing another agreement with the EU called the Migration and Mobility Agenda which enables the signatories to work together on the issue of migration. This also demonstrates fast evolving relationship between the two. The other factor that reveals the level of the relationship is the partnership on the fight against global terrorism. Coordinators of the anti-terrorism struggle of the Union are scheduled to visit Ethiopia soon; another group which is going to confer on the issue of migration is also expected to come to Ethiopia. Though it is not as expected, the Union is also playing a big role in offering assistance to tackle the current drought in Ethiopia. Currently, Ethiopia is implementing the second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTPII) and in this regard, to tackle the drought while still being able to pursue its growth targets, it needs assistance; and we request the Union to help in this regard. There is this Mid-Term Review in the Union where well performing countries will-get some additional funds. Ethiopia gets a substantial amount of funds from the 11th Development Fund. This success is the result of our performance internally over the areas of development, peace and stability. Another agenda we agreed up on is to increase the presence of European private sector in Ethiopia especially in the country’s development endeavor. To do so, European and Ethiopian Business Forum is going to be conducted in Brussels during the coming March or June where European private investors are expected to participate. These are substantial demonstrations that the relationship with the EU is indeed growing. 

What is the level of the current relationships in terms of trade? The balance of trade favors EU than Ethiopia. So what is the government doing in this regard?

To strengthen our economic relation, from our side, we have to work diligently on two areas. The first is that EU is a very large market with half a billion population, not only with vast population, but with strong purchasing power. We are already exporting some commodities to the EU market but it is not enough; we are not utilizing the market opportunity in Europe. The market is very large, we should export not only raw materials but also export processed goods. We are working on that. The second thing is that based on our current agreement, Ethiopia is listed as a developing nation and that allows us to export everything except arms to the European market free of tax; this is a very good advantage for us. However, we are not using this advantage to the maximum; therefore there are things that we should work on seriously to utilize this market. In this regard, we have to work seriously in all 28-member counties in promoting our products. Our missions are doing this. We are also working in attracting more tourists from Europe. In terms of technology transfer, we are working with many universities of the member states and we should strengthen this. In order to exploit the market intensively, we have to work hard locally so as to increase the quality of the products that we are exporting to the European market. In this regard, there are directions on the GTPII to focus on manufacturing and quality products. The other thing that we want from Europe is investment; we need more quality-oriented investment to come to Ethiopia. The investment that comes from Europe so far is not satisfactory. We want the biggest private investors to come and invest in Ethiopia.

In relation to human rights conditions and building a democratic system, the Union has always been critical of the Ethiopian government. How do you see engagement in this area?

By the way, when we say the Union, we should be aware that there are different organs in the Union. There is the European Union Council where 28 member states participate. There is also the European Union Parliament that works on legislation, budget approval and so on. The third organ is the Commission; and the fourth one is European Union Foreign Service. Therefore, when we see our relation accordingly to these organs, our relation with the Parliament has its own limitations. The basic thing that should be understood here is that there is criticism on the issues of human rights, building a democratic system, development of democratic culture and freedom of the press from parliament. We recognize some of these constructive criticisms and engage with them to discuss the issues. However, on the contrary, there are also criticisms where our difference is clearly expressed. Our difference with the parliament is not healthy since the 2005 election due to the report that the election observer team has produce. The problem that occurred following the 2005 election with the parliament is not resolved yet. But, our relationship with the European Union is not only limited to the parliament. The parliament is a political organ of the Union. Also, this doesn’t mean that all the 750 MPs have the same stand on Ethiopia. This is the one area where our relationship with the parliament is deteriorating. The second reason that affected our relation is that they associate the issues of human right situation, building democratic system, freedom of the press and the political landscape in Ethiopia with individuals. Here too we have a big difference. One of the manifestations of a democratic political system is the rule of law; when we detain those who violate the law in the country, they keep saying that Ethiopia is detaining journalists and politicians. But no one is above the law. We have been explaining the issue repetitively. There is no one who is allowed to violate the law of the member states or the Union and goes scot-free; it is possible to show discontent about the law but no one violates the law. The law is respected but people have rights to ask for the change or amendments of any law. To the contrary, what’s happening in Ethiopia is different; those groups or individuals who didn’t like the law express their discontent by violating the law, which is wrong, and against the principle of the constitution. This is not, in fact, practiced in Europe, but they blame us for that; and this is also another area where our difference is manifested. It is important to understanding that we are striving for the promotion of human rights, building a democratic system and multiparty system and freedom of the press, not because they wanted us to do so, but because such rights are enshrined in our constitution. We incorporate such rights not because we were pressured, it is because we believe that it is necessary. However, when we implement these systems, there are some problems and we never denied that; we are facing some problems in implementation of rights. But still, they wanted to measure the situation in Ethiopia with their own standards; we are trying to work on our infant democratic system. Building a democratic system is not an overnight affair, Human rights concerns are raised in many countries; however, it is not done intentionally. We have clear constitution and policies; we have also institutions to implement the constitution and the policies; but the institutions are in their infant stages. We are working on strengthening the system; in due course we might encounter some problems and we work on that. We are looking for constructive engagement from the Union because there is no democratic system, which is built by pressure which comes from outside. Nevertheless, this is a segment of the relationship; it is not the only manifestation of the relationship. The major manifestation of the relationship is based on mutual respect in the areas of development, anti-terrorism, and the issue of migration.

Recently, the European Parliament is looking over a draft motion on Ethiopia whose content criticizes the government for the loss of life and destruction of property in relation to the recent unrest in some parts of the Oromia Region. What is the reaction of your government to the motion?

 

We have not responded to the motion at the government level; we will respond if it is necessary. However, personally, I will comment on the issue. The motion which was presented to the parliament is concerned with the recent unrest in some parts of Oromia and in one place in the Amhara Regional State. They are allowed to do so; this is not new. Whenever they have a concern over a certain issue in a certain area the parliament is entitled to entertain such an agenda. This is not the first time for the parliament to review a motion on Ethiopia; the same thing was done after the 2005 election. It is rather a modus operandi in the parliament. There are different methods to present an agenda to parliament. An agenda can be presented when a committee in the parliament wanted to do so. Political groups in the parliament are also entitled to present their case before the parliament. Apart from that, if 40 members of the parliament wanted to present their agenda in the parliament they are also allowed to present their agenda before the parliament in the form of a motion or resolution. In this regard, we suspected that the social and democratic parties in the parliament presented the recent agenda for the motion. This is not new, as I have mentioned earlier, the relationship between the parliament and Ethiopia has deteriorated following the 2005 election. Leader of the European Union Election Observer Team during the 2005 election is still in the parliament and pushes the parliament to confer on Ethiopia. Look here, the problem is not why the motion or the decision is presented to the parliament; it is rather the content of the motion. The motion is presented to the parliament because of the recent unrest in Oromia Region. However, if you look at the motion and examine whether it contains clear information and evidence, you find out that it is far from the reality on the ground. Indeed, the motion raised some points directly related to the recent unrest. However, it is full of information that is obtained from the social media and opposition groups. Since there is not any report from the government side regarding the number of causalities, the cause of the unrest and the responsible parties for the loss of life and destruction of property, the motion contains information that is gathered from the social media and opposition groups. However, the motion considers the situation as if the case is adequately investigated. Therefore, the motion has many flaws in relation to the information. This gap in the information makes them to arrive at a wrong conclusion and decision. If they were doing their work based on accurate information, they would not have arrived at such a flawed conclusion; and they might even provide a constructive recommendation. The motion stated the number of causalities and concluded that the security forces used excessive force. But without examining the case properly, it is totally wrong. Whether the security forces use excessive force or not, it is not yet determined. So where did they get the information which led them to arrive at such conclusions?

On one hand, they requested the government to properly investigate the case and bring those responsible before the court of law; while on the other hand, they concluded and blamed the government over the issues as if everything is investigated and completed. Another problem of the motion is its focus. If you see it, it covers issues which are not directly connected with the unrest; it incorporates all the problems that they have been raising since the government took power. This is an indication that it is not only about the recent unrest; it is rather highly politically motivated motion. 

Have you met the MPs and discussed issues regarding the motion?

We are working to explain the problems of the motion to different members of the parliament. By the way, we were briefing and providing accurate information to more than 100 members of the parliament about the problem before the motion was presented to the parliament. We were providing information over the real situation on the ground and the measures taken by the government. Even after the motion was presented, we were doing the same thing both for the members of the parliament who were participating in the motion and other members who are working in different committees of the parliament. But the problem here is that since the parliament is located in Strasbourg, it is very difficult to meet them regularly and that was another challenge. However, we are meeting them and explaining to them about the situation and the problems of the motion.

You have mentioned that one of the areas that Ethiopia and the Union are working on together is the area of fighting global terrorism. However, leaders of groups labeled by Ethiopian parliament as a terrorist organizations are regularly invited to the European Parliament to brief the parliamentarians over the issues of Ethiopia. Don’t you think it is contradictory to the principle of working together?

The European parliament has its own rules and regulations. On the one hand, we are their strategic partners in the fight against global terrorism. On the other hand, they had invited a leader of a group labeled by the Ethiopian parliament as a terrorist group. We have been discussing this issue for quite some time; of course not with the parliament, but with individual parliamentarians. But, the problem here is that any member of the parliament has the right to invite anyone who he sees fit to explain about certain issues; they are allowed to invite peoples over different issues. These are the people who abuse the law; at the same time there are members of the parliament who genuinely request amendment of such laws. Whatever the case, their response in this regard is that since the law allowed them to do so, we can’t fight it; but that doesn’t mean that they all are supporting it. For example, the foreign relation office, through its delegation residing here, declared that in principle they don’t support such an activity. They also said that individual members of the parliament are extending such invitations; not the organs of the Union or the parliament.

As it is well known, and as you have also mentioned it, the relationship between Ethiopia and the Union deteriorated following the 2005 election. The main difference between two was the report by the European Election Observer Team. Following the report head of the observer team and member of the European Union Parliament, Anna Gomes, was very critical of the Ethiopian government. Since then, Gomes remained critical of the government and in this regard some argued that she has outstripped the government in public relations. How do you react to that?

The deterioration of the relation following the 2005 election was not with all organs of the Union. What the observer team was doing was going out of its mandate and agreement with the government of Ethiopia. Especially, the stand and the decision taken by the head of the election observer mission were in violation of such protocols; we were also expressing our objection to it. The head of the observer team was taking issues personally; and stated officially that she will support the opposition camp until the EPRDF government is overthrown. Secondly, we had stiff arguments with her after the election on a platform where I was attending; it was the joint parliamentary meeting. However, we always wanted and have tried to engage with her if things will be changed, and for this reason, she was attending the ACP EU parliamentarian summit here in Addis Ababa in 2013. But, still she does not want to change her view; not even after seeing improvements in the country. Therefore, it is very difficult to discuss with her logically the issues of improvement and change in the country since she committed herself to criticize Ethiopia and the government that was elected by the people. This is anti-democratic and disgraceful for all Ethiopians. In this regard, we don’t want to do what she is doing in terms of public relation. She is working to appease the opposition constituency and we don’t have enough time to respond to all such allegations. Our major focus is the larger members of the parliament and other organs of the Union; and hence we are working to provide all the necessary information to such MPs and other organs of the EU.