Across the Global South, the last decade has been defined largely by the prioritization of local over international dynamics. Several political transitions across the Global South—as a result of the Arab Spring that began in 2010 and a domino effect of uprisings across other continents—have resulted in a shift toward nationalist messaging and inherently more charged and politically isolating policies.
Ethiopia is no exception to this emerging pattern. The ongoing conflict in the country resulted from years of political instability, which has reached breaking point. Since the death of former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi in 2012, the country has fallen into a cycle of power struggles among armed actors, including national and federal authorities. Notably, the rise of Abiy Ahmed to power in 2017 began a slow and steady collapse into heavy nationalism that split Ethiopia along ethnic and regional fault lines. This situation exacerbated already active tensions over competition for resources and historical grievances amid divisions between regional and centralized power, culminating in the tragic conflict that has embroiled the country since November 2020.
Since then, Ethiopia has fallen into a de facto civil war as Abiy’s Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), alongside local militias from the Amhara region and the Eritrean Defense Forces, has attacked the Tigray region, looking to unseat the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from power. The assault on Tigray became protracted following the movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border into Sudan, while an ongoing territorial dispute between Amhara and Tigray continues to fuel the conflict.
European Union (EU) relations across the Horn of Africa have also intensified in recent years. Reflecting both the union’s broader migration interests and emerging security threats in East Africa and the Red Sea, the importance of the Horn region has crossed into several geopolitical arenas that tie into EU foreign policy. Situated in close proximity—in terms of geography and policy—to the EU’s Southern neighborhood, the Horn of Africa poses several questions, threats, and concerns for the EU and its wider interests. Ethiopia, specifically, has become a new playground for regional and international geopolitical interests. This has intensified of late with the conflict that has engulfed the country.
While the conflict and political dynamics are inherently local, Ethiopia and the region hold much international significance. The EU has a long-standing presence in the country, where it works on several development indicators and political transition policies. However, the EU faces significant competition from an expanding China, whose economic investments in the region are engineered to target Ethiopia’s market and development, and from powerful petrostates in the Gulf region, which also focus on Ethiopia as a major recipient of economic investment and support. In addition, over the last decade, Nile politics has reached an inflection point with a continuing dispute between Ethiopia and downstream riparian states Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
The EU’s initiatives in Ethiopia span several policy areas and are underpinned by the broader values-based nature of the union’s interventions related to peaceful democratic transition. Such policy areas include trade, security, and migration. In recent years, the EU has developed a targeted climate action policy that seeks to enable partners and actors to respond to climate change and its effects as well as provide support for environmental responses that can promote economic prosperity while avoiding harm to the environment. Africa is the continent most susceptible to the risks of climate change yet is also one of the lowest contributors to carbon emissions. While this has ensured that the Horn region and its leaders are well versed in climate risks, the region continues to fail to respond effectively, as leaders pay lip service to the challenges without backing up their words with material policies.1
Current Perceptions of the EU
Ethiopians’ perceptions of the EU differ greatly, depending on individual levels of vested interest, informed knowledge, and engagement with EU policies and support for Ethiopia. For civil society and human rights advocates, the EU’s values-based agenda has been tainted since the union’s 2015 migration crisis and its ensuing policies. Among Ethiopian policymakers, the view expressed by one European External Action Service (EEAS) official that the EU “bears the brunt of all the world’s conflicts and crises” reflects the way EU policy has shifted in recent years to become one that is perceived as more defensive and less values based.2 This, in turn, has contributed to growing negative perceptions of the EU.
Among the general public, however, the EU is generally regarded as a positive influence and a good partner for Ethiopia, with a values-oriented agenda that is respected across communities, despite some lingering misgivings about the EU’s interventions. Overall, Ethiopians see the union as a positive partner on development that helps create needed employment, address climate policies, and counter growing nervousness over China’s role, allowing the EU to bank significant goodwill and trust.
Some observers point to a lack of visibility about EU projects and investments. One example cited in an interview is Ethiopia’s Industrial Parks, which are largely funded by the EU but are not widely known to be an EU investment. In addition, because of other forms of investment and the dominant role of state-owned enterprises in the country, EU projects do not necessarily raise people’s salaries, so development progress remains slow despite important strides.3 Meanwhile, much of the criticism of the EU’s trade and development proposals is directed toward the Ethiopian government, which many also accuse of a lack of creativity to support and create middle-class income.
The EU as a Global Actor
Over the last decade, EU engagement in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa has increased significantly. As a global security partner, the EU has been vital in building a broader Red Sea security policy by engaging several actors in the region. This policy targets dialogue as a means of building peace and preserving security, including maritime security, where the EU has prioritized its interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea region is a priority for Europe as vital to global trade and of paramount strategic importance: in June 2018, the EU Council identified “inclusive regional dialogue” as imperative to security policy.4
As part of this policy, the EU special representative for the Horn of Africa—since July 2021, Annette Weber—has played an integral role in regional relationships, including in Nile politics and as a de facto observer in the GERD dispute.5 From 2011 to 2021, former special representative Alexander Rondos worked to build strong ties and trust between the EEAS and political actors across the Horn region and the Nile basin. As a result, the EU has benefited from a perception of trustworthiness around its engagement among regional leaders.
Yet, the union’s public image is challenged by a legacy of colonialism from certain member states, notably France and—until it left the EU in 2020—the United Kingdom (UK); this historical baggage effectively discourages open engagement with the West as a whole. This difficulty is further complicated by divisions between member states’ foreign policies and that of the EU as a whole, as well as more recent political hand-wringing over fears of migration.6
While the Tigray conflict has changed the tone of the international community’s diplomatic approach to Ethiopia, perceptions of the EU among Ethiopians remain subjective. Over the last twenty years, the EU’s role in the 2005 Ethiopian general election appears to have altered opinions of the union significantly, notably among civil society and the human rights community.7 Ethiopian actors point to mixed messaging at the time from EU election observers, including flip-flopping from individual members of the observation mission over endorsing the opposition, which led to questions about the EU’s supposed neutrality. Civil society activists contend that the EU’s presence allowed then leader Meles to rally support for himself and his party by politicizing ill-informed statements by the EU mission.8 One civil society advocate argued that a lack of trust from the wider Ethiopian public in the EU’s role in the election resulted in “giving Meles an additional ten years.”9
More recently, since Brexit, the UK has been building its own foreign policy in the region. While remaining largely aligned to the EU’s policy goals and values agenda, the UK’s policy is becoming more independent and vocal, particularly in the Horn of Africa. For the most part, observers expect this to grow into a largely “U.S.-plus” policy—that is, heavily influenced by decisions made in Washington—but in Ethiopia specifically, any new UK approach is not expected to detrimentally affect the EU’s engagement. Elsewhere, France and Germany have strong national presences in Ethiopia. While this provides opportunities for civic activists to use several diplomatic channels to engage with Europe as a whole, it also reflects the muted and lesser power of the EU’s centralized diplomacy.
This situation has been evident in diplomatic engagement over the Tigray conflict. Ethiopians have perceived the EU as weak, notably in comparison to robust U.S. diplomacy, which has been active in trying to mediate the conflict and extricating Eritrean troops from Ethiopia, where they are supporting Abiy’s forces. Nevertheless, EU diplomacy has become more prominent as the conflict has progressed, notably on addressing questions of accountability for possible human rights abuses. The EU has also called for negotiations between the Ethiopian central government and the TPLF and for a scaling back of the ENDF presence in Tigray. This call has fallen mainly on deaf ears, however. The EU has been disappointed in recent developments: having had high hopes for the role of the African Union (AU) as a mediator in the conflict, the EU is now struggling to find interlocutors.10
In addition, the EU invested significant capital in supporting Ethiopia’s rapprochement with Eritrea, which, with hindsight, appears to have been at the very least naive and at worst dangerous. The Ethiopian perception of the EU’s role is that of a bloc that is not as well versed in the local security dynamics as other actors in the region.11
In the last few years, EU policy has been dominated by internal discussions and foreign diplomacy centered on the issue of migration. The 2015 migration crisis resulted in immediate diplomatic tensions within the bloc as debates over refugee quotas, budgets, and border policies created various problems, particularly for the EU’s Schengen Area of passport-free travel.
Since then, diplomacy among the EU member states has focused on shoring up the bloc through increased attention on migration policies. The EU has implemented security agreements in the Mediterranean to try to prevent those seeking asylum from reaching European shores, while EU leaders have significantly increased the amount of the union’s budget allocated to migration.12 While the coronavirus pandemic has allowed the EU to temporarily adjust its Schengen border rules, the policies in place have not yet created a sustainable pathway to managing migration and refugee flows into Europe.
In Ethiopia, the migration crisis has created a significant amount of animosity toward Europe, where growing racism and xenophobia in domestic politics have alienated Ethiopians. In addition, the sentiment Ethiopians receive from Europe—that refugees are not welcome—has disappointed many who continue to seek opportunities abroad, including in other countries across Africa where EU partnerships involve stricter migration policies, for example Egypt and Libya. The fear of migration is now a central lens through which Ethiopia views the EU, although paradoxically, it has not diminished Ethiopians’ desire to have a partnership with the union.
Ethiopian migration has never accounted for a significant portion of direct migrant or refugee flows to Europe, although Ethiopians—alongside other Horn nationalities—do represent a major share of migrant flows into North Africa; many of these migrants then attempt to reach Europe through the central Mediterranean.13 Of late, concerns about increased migration flows have surfaced as a result of the Tigray war, notably as hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured into Sudan.
Migration plays a big role in discussions of EU perceptions, and not solely in Ethiopia. EU policies and statements have negatively affected the union’s reputation, notably on rights and freedoms and the values-based agenda the EU promotes. A significant amount of detail in Europe’s domestic political conversations reaches beyond the continent’s borders and is absorbed by other populations, including Ethiopia’s. More generally, the rise of populism in Europe, in the form of growing vote shares for far-right actors with xenophobic and anti-immigration policies, has added to a critical perception of Europe as a whole—and Europe remains synonymous with the EU for many Ethiopians. This has created a sentiment that Europe has abandoned Ethiopia and its future development.
There is also significant confusion at times among the Ethiopian general public about the EU, with little differentiation between the union’s member states and its Brussels-based institutions. Ethiopia does not necessarily suffer from the policy challenges faced in other countries, such as internal divides among EU member states over human rights and values, or member states acting as spoilers to EU policy; but Ethiopia does suffer from mixed EU messaging, which has been a long-standing challenge for the EEAS as it seeks to place itself among, not instead of, the member states. Observers note that the EU’s diplomatic presence in the country is confused as member-state missions interject into EU diplomatic efforts or have higher visibility than them. This trend is increased by the presence of missions that represent multiple nations with overlapping interests, such as at the AU or the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc of eight East African countries.
Ethiopia, like many of its neighbors, is a country well versed in the effects of climate change, and citizens are largely very aware of how important climate action will be in the near future. However, as is common across other countries with a similar focus, climate action has become synonymous with water security. Ethiopia’s significant political, social, and economic investment in completing the GERD—and, by extension, realizing its promise—has completely overtaken any other environmental issue or policy. According to one Ethiopian activist, the dam is “a lifeline for this country. It is the be-all and end-all. At this point [in the Tigray war], it is the only thing keeping this country together and afloat.”14
On environmental issues, perceptions of the EU are mixed. There is growing respect for the bloc’s domestic climate response, and Ethiopia takes a positive view of the EU’s reactions to the climate emergency, notably on emissions and renewable energy. However, there is also disdain in some quarters in Ethiopia for the EU’s role in attempting to broker a deal among the countries in the tripartite negotiations on the GERD: Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Nationalism is at an all-time high, particularly when the issue of the dam is raised. The EU being seen as supporting or siding with the downstream countries—in particular Egypt, with which Ethiopia has a fraught relationship—has negatively affected Ethiopian perceptions of EU neutrality and positive diplomacy.
Development actors and political observers in Ethiopia see the EU as having a comparatively small trading role compared with other countries that have invested in Ethiopia. As the EU gears its progress in this area toward Ethiopia’s domestic labor and trade markets, the union’s investments will naturally yield smaller results over a longer time frame. However, economists commend the EU’s trade policies and promotion of entrepreneurship, particularly compared with increased Chinese investment, which, these experts say, is troubling.
In spite of this, many Ethiopian observers confuse the EU’s institutional engagement with member states’ bilateral support, whether it relates to security, housing, land, property, or financial services. The EU has a long-standing budgetary support mechanism to aid the Ethiopian economy, opinions of which have been divided since the EU suspended some €88 million ($107 million) worth of aid in January 2021 in the wake of the Tigray conflict.15
In addition, some development experts argue that development support and trade agreements are not being felt domestically, contributing to a bigger malaise among citizens toward international investment. In the words of one Ethiopian journalist, “We don’t have enough ATMs in this country, and where we do, they regularly don’t work. And people want to talk about us being the emerging economic power in Africa?”16
The Coronavirus Pandemic
Global responses to the coronavirus pandemic have created a significant rise in negative perceptions among Ethiopians toward the EU and wider West. An impression of vaccine hoarding by rich, developed nations has collided with continued anticolonial sentiment and has sent animosity toward European countries and the United States soaring. Ethiopians watch in shock as the West debates new vaccines, booster shots, and further lockdowns while most Africans have yet to receive a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Meanwhile, the pandemic itself continues to rage as the most recent variants spread wildly across society. The sentiment of “Europeans traveling and living freely while Africans die,” as one civic activist put it,17 is not exclusive to Ethiopia and has been echoed even by some of the continent’s most powerful leaders.18 This feeling has led to leaders across Africa calling for the continent to manufacture existing COVID-19 vaccines locally and even create its own jabs.19
The EU Compared with Other Actors
In the Horn of Africa, the EU is competing for diplomatic clout in an increasingly competitive region. China’s massive economic expansion across the Horn and notable commitments to Ethiopia have crowded out traditional Western allies and partners, particularly where Chinese development assistance and investments are unconditional with no values-based agenda. Beijing is currently the largest investor in Ethiopia, accounting for over 30 percent of all greenfield foreign direct investment projects.20 In addition, China has built an ideological partnership with Ethiopia, built on Meles’s “belief that the neoliberal Western development plan is flawed,” in the words of one U.S. academic.21
However, that is not to say that Ethiopia’s citizens welcome Chinese expansion in the country as the leadership does. Negative depictions of Addis Ababa as a “city of cranes”—as remarked by locals in the capital—represent an increasingly nervous mood toward Chinese investment in Ethiopia.23 There is also growing concern about overdependence on China, which now holds in the region of 30 percent of Ethiopia’s foreign debt.23 Recent Chinese appropriations of other countries’ state assets as a response to defaulting on their debt have raised questions over whether Ethiopia can sustain this level of Chinese investment.24
Beijing’s presence sits uncomfortably with Ethiopians, who describe their desperate need for basic goods and services, which cannot be solved with mass infrastructure change in the capital.25 This situation has left a sense of abandonment in Ethiopian regions that have not seen the fruits of such investment, accelerating tensions between regional leaders and the central government.26 This sentiment remains potent despite Chinese support and funding for the GERD, which is seen not only as Ethiopia’s economic lifeline but also as a national, regional, and global confirmation of what one civil society advocate called the country’s “Horn hegemon” status.27
Exacerbated by the injection of foreign forces, specifically from Eritrea, the Tigray conflict has upended local and regional dynamics. Some Ethiopians who describe themselves as neutral toward the conflict argue that Abiy is being dictated to and manipulated by Eritrea’s leader, Isaias Afwerki, who has become a puppet master in the conflict. Ethiopians perceive Afwerki as both an integral contributor to Abiy’s survival and the major actor who is impeding peaceful negotiations for a sustained ceasefire and an end to the siege of Tigray, which has prevented aid deliveries and international support. One journalist remarked, “We are on the precipice of deciding Abiy’s fate. He cannot make peace with the TPLF and remain a partner of [Afwerki]. Yet, he cannot continue this war and isolate Tigray such that he threatens the nation-state.”28
The Tigray conflict also comes at a time when U.S. policy in the region has been heavily diminished amid a broader global retreat. Furthermore, the Gulf states, primarily led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have embarked on a path to gain significant power and control through economic and security policies that encompass the Horn of Africa. Competition for security control of the Red Sea has brought the Gulf regimes to the region, with ideological and economic priorities that influence regional dynamics. The UAE has waded into the Ethiopian conflict directly by providing weapons and support to the ENDF.29
Among Ethiopians, the perception is that these countries are “out for themselves, and not seeking Ethiopia’s prosperity based on values,” as one journalist put it.30 However, these outside players are also seen as bringing sustainable wealth and growth to Ethiopia, even if the UAE’s very specific interventions in the conflict have worked to isolate Tigray, where such operations enjoy no popular support. Nevertheless, little is known locally about the UAE or other Gulf countries, so their interventions do not generally feature in discussions of global actors’ roles in Ethiopia. Even so, this involvement by the strategic Gulf nation has exacerbated the UAE’s own tensions with its allies, Egypt and Sudan, and further entrenched all three nations that continue to face off in the decade-long GERD dispute.
Over the last decade, strategic interventions have become intertwined with one another across Africa, in particular in the Horn. This has deeply affected existing power structures and destabilized the EU’s foreign policy goals tied to migration, security, and the protection of universal rights and practices through values-based support. Competition for resources, influence, and security control from external actors has directly affected both governance and politics in Ethiopia. Support from China and the Gulf states has entrenched central power in Ethiopia, providing Addis Ababa with the macroeconomic success that absolves it of accountability toward the international community.
Furthermore, Ethiopia’s commitment to the GERD, supported materially and financially by states such as China and the UAE, has allowed the Ethiopian government to rally around the dam project and create a sense of national unity. However, this has come at the expense of years of bad governance, poor public service delivery, and little significant economic development for regional and rural communities, while political and social tensions have led to civil war. In particular, the growing level of discord among Ethiopians, notably toward Tigrayans, risks a rupture that would be felt far beyond Ethiopia’s borders.
Meanwhile, the United States has been loud and effective despite its mixed messaging as the presidency in Washington has changed hands. Former president Donald Trump challenged the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship by overtly supporting Egypt’s demands on the Nile. Current President Joe Biden, by contrast, has taken a strict approach to the conflict and to Abiy by suspending all U.S. economic and development aid while appointing a Horn of Africa special envoy to try to defuse the conflict and support a resolution.
In this context, the lack of a prominent EU role is reflected in the way Ethiopians perceive the bloc. The EU remains comparatively absent from the list of growing regional and international influences on Ethiopia’s trajectory. Although, in the first instance, this allows for EU policy implementation to continue behind the scenes, the perception remains that Ethiopia needs a partner such as the EU to take a larger role in the wider diplomatic, political, and security picture. While the EU has long been seen across its African partners as a stabilizing presence, the union now risks being largely drowned out by the interests of other, louder parties.
The EU is handicapped by its deeply bureaucratic and challenging technocratic environment, which often leaves much to be desired when the union is tasked with harnessing its political and diplomatic prowess. By regularly falling back on its default positions that the EU is not a state, has no military, and must prioritize migration, the union risks not only being overtaken by more powerful and more coherent states but also being ineffective in promoting any of its policies, however they may be received.
Future Priorities for EU-Ethiopia Relations
Ethiopia’s perceptions of the EU provide several opportunities for the union to recalibrate its policies toward the country—although doing so will require a major effort by the EU to reestablish itself in a crowded international arena, where traditional Western power and influence have been significantly diminished. In terms of future priorities for the EU-Ethiopia relationship, four areas stand out: diplomacy, migration, climate, and the coronavirus pandemic.
The EU’s approach to Ethiopia requires redress and an acknowledgment of the union’s weaknesses and potential strengths. The EU must no longer attempt to exercise influence where it does not wield any and must instead work with its member states and allies, including when their voices may have more influence than the Brussels-based institutions or present a comparative advantage over them.31 The EU’s diplomacy in Ethiopia is not as potent as it is in the AU, so diplomatic efforts should focus on the institutions that can yield the most results.
While the EU may not be an effective diplomatic mediator in Ethiopia’s current civil conflict or the myriad of wider conflict drivers in the country, it does have significant goodwill and a values-based agenda that—for the most part—Ethiopians perceive positively. The EU can therefore invest in long-term dialogue initiatives that address the root causes of the conflict. This approach requires deep investment that should be maintained over a significant period as the EU seeks to repair broken social ties across communities and regions to promote sustainable reconciliation on a societal level. The EU remains Ethiopia’s most trusted partner to invest in such efforts and can do so with the support of its member states, notably those with less of a vested interest in Ethiopia, such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.
More broadly, in dealing with Ethiopia and its neighborhood, there is an opportunity for the EU—and the wider international community—to acknowledge that conflict and strongman politics are spreading instability and weakening security throughout the Horn of Africa. At the same time, authoritarianism is now being questioned through mobilization and protest in countries from Djibouti and Somalia to Kenya and Uganda. In response, the EU and other international stakeholders can work to empower civilian actors and create trust in and support for a pluralist political system based on the values that Europe represents.
Ethiopian policy experts who work with or alongside the EU perceive a lack of focus from the EEAS on the Horn of Africa and potential spoiler actors in the wider region. While Europe and the United States have focused much time and effort on China, the international community has, by and large, afforded much less attention to the roles of Iran, Israel, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE. Ethiopia has a specific vested interest in Gulf relations, notably when it comes to economic migration and the plight of domestic workers. Bilateral diplomacy between Ethiopia and the Gulf countries is increasing and will have a direct effect on the EU’s presence and policies in the country.
The EU continues to suffer from migration fatigue, both in Brussels and in partner countries and regions. The effect of the union fixating on the migration agenda for the last seven years should not be understated. The EU must work to break away from its migration-obsessive approach and reestablish its values-based agenda, which is rooted in support for democratic norms and the protection of human rights and justice rather than a perceived ulterior motive of “stopping the boats,” as one journalist put it.32
The EU and its like-minded partners should also move away from a binary reading of Ethiopia as simply Addis Ababa vs. Tigray. The union should seek to establish continuous contacts beyond the two official warring factions and use the knowledge gained to engage in long-term reconciliation efforts on the ground.
Despite perceptions of having a weak presence in Ethiopia, the EU is most successful when using its soft-power status and technical expertise, and it should continue to do so in sectors that can benefit both Ethiopia and the EU itself. For example, while regional leaders are climate conscious and aware of climate risks, their words remain mere lip service. The EU should significantly increase its investment and support for communities—rather than leaders—to help climate action initiatives, given how destructive climate change has been to the wider Horn region and local communities, specifically urban ones.33
Primarily, the EU’s backing should focus on climate action and environmental efforts. The EU’s experience provides the union with much expertise and goodwill, which it can use to encourage Ethiopia to implement policies that view climate holistically and remove the specter of the GERD. By promoting climate action that complements the hydroelectric project but does not center the climate response solely on questions of water security and energy production, the EU can help build awareness and knowledge on climate change and promote local investment and growth.
Even when policies are not prioritized, they can still be shaped as diplomatic and bilateral engagement that can respond to broader state needs while addressing core issues. That is to say, while regional leaders are climate aware, their priority remains their political and physical survival. Although climate change denial is not a threat to policymaking in the Horn region, including Ethiopia, there is a need to reshape interventions so they respond to immediate needs, such as food and water security, or focus on specific renewable energy policies rather than wider climate action that is vague and, arguably, detached from the lived experiences of ordinary citizens.
The Coronavirus Pandemic
Finally, the EU must drastically shift its global response to the coronavirus pandemic. To do so, the union must contribute to and encourage diplomatic and economic investment for the region—and Africa at large—to produce locally made COVID-19 vaccines. The international community must remove patents on the manufacture of vaccines to allow countries across the continent to form partnerships for the creation of vaccine hubs.
Furthermore, the EU should do more to support Ethiopian efforts to foster economic growth after the pandemic. The biggest challenge in this context, in light of the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, will be food security; to this are added ongoing difficulties with regard to employment opportunities for a growing population, energy diversification and resource management, and post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. A regional coronavirus vaccination drive could promote cross-border engagement as well as local, regional, and international investment. The faster countries like Ethiopia can vaccinate their publics, the faster they can begin their economic recoveries.
What happens in Ethiopia affects both the country and goes beyond its borders. Therefore, EU policy toward Ethiopia and the union’s bilateral ties with the country need to be generated and developed in a holistic way that takes into account EU policies and interests in the broader region as well as regional perceptions that complement views from Ethiopia.
The Tigray conflict has challenged the EU’s traditional relationship with Ethiopia’s central government, as allegations emerge of war crimes committed by both sides in the conflict. That is in addition to Eritrea’s tacit support for the arming of nonstate actors and the legal and logistical siege of the Tigray region, which has brought millions to the brink of a food and healthcare crisis. The EU must balance its political and diplomatic engagement with interlocutors, mediating partners, and the international community to help end the conflict and seek accountability for any crimes that have been committed.
In addition, Ethiopia’s pursuit of trade and development targets is hampered by injections of funds by other countries that offer relatively unconditional aid, which further impedes EU partnerships while Ethiopia’s economy continues to struggle. Behind the headlines of record-breaking sustained growth over the last decade, the fundamentals of Ethiopia’s economy do not function effectively, creating challenges to regional security goals and proactive economic partnerships between Ethiopia and its international partners, including Europe. Basic services are poor in urban centers and nonexistent in rural areas. Civilians stand for hours in long lines unable to access cash from ATMs. Air pollution is a growing problem in Ethiopia, and the country’s energy crisis has long been documented. Such failures in the provision of basic services can make bigger economic commitments or development goals irrelevant to ordinary citizens, who simply desire more functional public services.
On the foreign policy front, beyond the stagnating diplomacy over transborder water management, the GERD is a project that is already over a decade in the making. Year on year, the dam suffers from internal complications, disputes, and missed deadlines that mean Ethiopia is still years away from benefiting materially from the advantages the GERD may provide. This is despite the dam’s first turbine producing power in early 2022, even as the challenges of an inadequate power distribution network lingered and a negotiated settlement with downstream countries remained elusive. All the while, Ethiopia continues to compete with other states in its neighborhood for relevance and power as its status as a regional hegemon is challenged by ethnic, tribal, and political tensions.
Ethiopia’s internal strife is taking place amid a difficult regional landscape. Constitutional crisis has engulfed Somalia alongside Ethiopia, fraudulent elections in Uganda and Djibouti have raised significant questions over the stability of the region, and Sudan’s military leaders are attempting to wrest power away from the country’s democratic transition, risking civil or regional war. This is all happening while Eritrea continues to dictate a destabilizing policy that empowers those arguably least able to serve their communities fairly, pulling them further away from the EU and the broader international community.
Europe’s relationship with Ethiopia should not ignore material regional challenges that affect primary security goals. Nor should the EU engage with partners in the Horn of Africa regardless of nefarious activities in the neighborhood—be they from countries like Eritrea or farther afield in the Gulf. Nevertheless, Europe must reestablish a more material bilateral partnership with Ethiopia that can address core challenges in the country, benefit ordinary citizens, and support democratic norms while strengthening Ethiopia’s governance structures. If successful, such positive change can, in turn, benefit security and stability in the broader Horn region.
Hafsa Halawa is an independent consultant and policy specialist working on the Middle East and North Africa and the Horn of Africa. She specializes in regional geopolitics, development, civil society, and gender equality.
1 Virtual interview with an international journalist in the Horn region, June 2021.
2 Interview with a senior EEAS official in Brussels, April 2018.
3 Virtual interview with an Ethiopian journalist, July 2021.
4 “Horn of Africa and Red Sea: Council Adopts Conclusions,” Council of the European Union, June 25, 2018, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2018/06/25/horn-of-africa-and-red-sea-council-adopts-conclusions/.
5 “Council Appoints Three New EU Special Representatives for the Sahel, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa,” Council of the European Union, June 21, 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/21/council-appoints-three-new-eu-special-representatives-for-the-sahel-central-asia-and-the-horn-of-africa/.
6 Virtual interview with an independent journalist based in the Horn region, July 2021.
7 Virtual interview with a civil society and human rights advocate, July 2021.
9 Virtual interview with a civil society advocate, July 2021.
10 Virtual interview with a journalist based in Addis Ababa, June 2021.
11 Virtual interview with a journalist based in the Horn region, July 2021.
12 “Migration Flows in the Central Mediterranean Route,” Council of the European Union, March 24, 2022, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/eu-migration-policy/central-mediterranean-route/; “Migration Flows in the Eastern Mediterranean Route,” Council of the European Union, March 24, 2022, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/eu-migration-policy/eastern-mediterranean-route/; “Migration Flows in the Western Mediterranean and Western African Routes,” Council of the European Union, March 24, 2022, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/eu-migration-policy/western-routes/.
13 “Enabling a Better Understanding of Migration Flows (and Its Root-Causes) From Ethiopia Towards Europe,” International Organization for Migration, April 2017, https://displacement.iom.int/system/tdf/reports/Desk%20Review%20Report%20-%20ETHIOPIA%20-MinBuZa%20%2802%29_0.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=2168.
14 Virtual interview with an Ethiopian activist based in Addis Ababa, July–September 2021.
15 “EU Suspends Ethiopian Budget Support Over Tigray Crisis,” Reuters, January 15, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-eu/eu-suspends-ethiopian-budget-support-over-tigray-crisis-idUSKBN29K1SS.
16 Virtual interviews with an Ethiopian journalist based in Addis Ababa, July–September 2021 and March 2022.
17 Virtual interview with a civic activist, July 2021.
18 Khanyi Mlaba, “7 Leaders From Africa Who Are Leading the Charge Against COVID-19 Vaccine Hoarding,” Global Citizen, April 30, 2021, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/leaders-africa-calling-out-vaccine-nationalism/.
19 Janice Kew and Antony Sguazzin, “Vaccine Equity: Africa Calls for COVID-19 Vaccine Plants on Its Shores,” Fortune, May 8, 2021, https://fortune.com/2021/05/08/africa-covid-19-vaccine-plants-on-shores/; “S.Africa’s Ramaphosa Calls for African-made Vaccines,” France 24, April 12, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210412-s-africa-s-ramaphosa-calls-for-african-made-vaccines.
20 Riccardo Crescenzi and Nicola Limodio, “Chinese Investment and New Growth Patterns in Africa,” London School of Economics and Political Science, January 26, 2021, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gild/2021/01/26/how-chinese-investment-shape-new-growth-patterns-in-africa/.
21 Virtual interview with a U.S. academic specializing in China policies in the Horn of Africa, July 2021.
22 Virtual interview with an analyst and academic, June 2021.
23 Virtual interview with a U.S. economist focused on the Horn of Africa region and Ethiopian-Chinese relations, July 2021.
25 Virtual interview with an Ethiopian journalist based in Addis Ababa, July 2021.
27 Virtual interview with an Ethiopian civil society advocate based in Addis Ababa, September 2021.
28 Interview with an Ethiopian journalist in Europe, March 2022.
29 Virtual interview with a regional security expert, July 2021.
30 Interview with an Ethiopian journalist in Europe, March 2022.
31 Virtual interview with a regional civil society and human rights advocate, July 2021.
32 Virtual interview with a journalist based in the Horn region, July 2021.