EU pulls Eritrea funding, citing Tigray conflict, 'lack of interest'

EU heads of missions visit a road construction site in Eritrea. Photo by: European Union in Eritrea via Facebook

The European Commission plans to “de-commit” more than €100 million ($120 million) away from Eritrea in the clearest sign yet that Brussels’ “dual-track” attempt to mix development assistance and political dialogue with the oppressive East African nation has reached the end of the line.

Jutta Urpilainen, the European Union commissioner for international partnerships, wrote to the European Parliament’s development committee chair and political group coordinators this week to outline the move, which affects funding under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, or EUTF for Africa.

The Finnish commissioner noted that since the 2018 rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the EU “has invested significant political and financial capital to seize the opportunity,” while “ensuring the EU’s fundamental values were respected.”

Yet the letter, obtained by Devex, explained that of the nine projects — worth €141.3 million — approved for Eritrea through the trust fund, just one has begun implementation. Some €80 million was approved for procurement through the United Nations Office for Project Services for roadwork, but only around €19 million has been disbursed amid fierce criticism from European Parliament members and human rights activists over the risk that conscripted labor would be used on the roads.

“Engagement with Eritrea should not endanger the rights of the country’s population.”

— Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director, Human Rights Watch

Commission officials initially defended the road project, and Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, told journalists in March 2020 that the EU should continue to pursue both development and diplomacy “to change structures and change the way in which the political system works.”

“I don’t think we can always be playing the Good Samaritan and handing out donations but not getting into the political evolution of a country,” Borrell said last year. “Eritrea is one of the main sources of migrants to Europe after all, so we are going to continue this work and expect success, although we know that this won’t necessarily happen tomorrow.”

However, this “dual-track approach” had been under review in recent months, in the lead-up to this week’s shift.

Urpilainen wrote that the eight other trust fund projects are still awaiting clearance from the Eritrean government. “Implementation ... has remained highly challenging,” the commissioner wrote. “This situation reflects the lack of interest expressed by the Government of Eritrea on EUTF-funded projects and, more generally, on development co-operation with the EU.”

The letter noted that Eritrean troops’ involvement in the Tigray conflict in northern Ethiopia had “further compounded” the situation. Discussing Tigray on Monday, Borrell said that “Eritrean troops are not withdrawing, and human rights violations continue.”

The Eritrean Embassy in Brussels did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

With a December 2021 deadline to recommit the money, Urpilainen wrote that she would propose that it go to other priorities in the Horn of Africa, including €62 million for Sudan’s democratic transition, €18 million for refugees in Sudan fleeing Tigray, €20 million to combat famine in South Sudan, and €20 million for displaced people and migrants across the region. The commission will present its new proposal to the fund’s operational committee by the end of this month.

French Greens MEP Michèle Rivasi, who was among the main opponents of EU support to the road project, welcomed the commission’s move. “The money meant for Eritrea will now serve much more valuable humanitarian purposes,” she told Devex on Friday.

EU foreign chief defends aid for Eritrea amid human rights concerns

Josep Borrell says the EU's dual-track development and diplomacy approach to government reform in Eritrea is showing some results, though experts beg to differ.

“This makes much more sense than building a highway for a dictator — Eritrean President [Isaias] Afwerki — who does not hesitate to order the army to attack civilians and to raze the Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray to the ground,” Rivasi added.

Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told Devex on Friday that the EU’s attempted dual-track engagement with Eritrea “has unfortunately failed to bring about greatly needed rights reforms.”

“Trying to fund projects without proper monitoring mechanisms and due diligence in a context marred by pervasive forced labor, the EU risked to contribute to the government’s abuses,” Bader added. “Engagement with Eritrea should not endanger the rights of the country’s population.”

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.