With the European Union withholding payments to the Ethiopian government over the conflict in its Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke to one of the bloc’s most influential national leaders Tuesday on improving bilateral ties.
"Good phone call with Chancellor Angela Merkel on national and regional issues,” Abiy tweeted, “including #COVID19 as well as strengthening development and economic cooperation between #Ethiopia and Germany."
According to a German government readout of the call, the pair discussed “the domestic political situation in Ethiopia, regional security issues and questions relating to bilateral cooperation.”
“The Chancellor emphasized the importance of a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Tigray region and the humanitarian care of the people affected in the conflict area,” the readout continued. “Humanitarian aid organizations and the media must be given free access to the Tigray region.”
A commission spokesperson told Devex that other kinds of assistance, such as humanitarian aid and development programs through NGOs, are continuing but that payments to the government will only be unblocked once certain conditions are met, in particular “granting full humanitarian access for relief actors to reach people in need in all affected areas, in line with International Humanitarian Law.”
Officials in Brussels were hoping that EU member states would follow suit. But Berlin has taken a different stance.
Devex asked Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, or BMZ, last month whether it agrees with the commission that assistance to the Ethiopian government should be postponed until the situation on the ground improves.
“The Team Europe approach in the context of the pandemic will have a much stronger impact on the ground in Ethiopia if there is full alignment with Member States.”— A European Commission spokesperson
“The Ethiopian government remains committed to its reform process, even since the start of the conflict in Tigray,” a spokesperson responded by email. “To facilitate the structural and sustainable implementation of this process over the medium and long term, Germany is willing to continue supporting Ethiopia. The German government is therefore continuing its ongoing bilateral development cooperation programmes.”
That didn’t elicit much support in Brussels, where officials have been pushing for a “Team Europe” approach to development policy, meaning better coordination between the commission, EU member states, the European Investment Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
“Decisions over budget support are for each Member State,” a commission spokesperson emailed Devex, “but the Team Europe approach in the context of the pandemic will have a much stronger impact on the ground in Ethiopia if there is full alignment with Member States.”
The EU says Ethiopia must grant full humanitarian access to Tigray before it will restore €88 million of suspended budget support.
The BMZ spokesperson wrote that Germany is acting in line with the EU and other donors, however, as Berlin has its own conditions to be met before further funds are disbursed, including holding parliamentary elections — expected in June — and beginning a “credible political process” aimed at resolving the conflict in Tigray. The final condition is the conclusion of debt rescheduling negotiations between Ethiopia and China.
“Since funds will, in any event, only be disbursed following parliamentary elections, the German government is taking a long-term view,” the spokesperson wrote. “We will coordinate closely with the EU on all further steps.”
At least one EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was more skeptical. “This is the issue with EU foreign policy,” the official told Devex. “If you are unified, you can do something. If you’re not, it’s like a shot in your own foot.”