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Can Berlin, Paris reset 'strained' EU-Ethiopia ties?

January 12, 2023

Germany and France have dispatched their top envoys to Ethiopia to revamp relations strained by the Tigray conflict. Analysts say the EU member states are keen to support the reconstruction process but challenges remain.

Three women walk outside on a sunny day, surrounded by security officials
The German and French foreign ministers are scheduled to hold talks with Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde (center), Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other government officialsImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's visit to Ethiopia on Thursday and Friday comes as the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) implement a peace deal signed in November to end two years of brutal war.

Baerbock is accompanied by her French counterpart, Catherine Colonna, who issued a statement on January 5 saying the trip would underscore their support for the peace deal brokered by the African Union.

The Tigray conflict began in November 2020 after TPLF fighters attacked a military base in the north of Ethiopia, prompting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare war on the TPLF.

Subsequent fighting — which expanded to include militias from the Amhara region and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, who supported the Ethiopian National Defense Force — killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions of others.

The Ethiopian government then imposed a blockade on Tigray, which cut off telecommunications and hindered the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Since the peace accord was signed in November, the blockade has been lifted, aid is finally flowing and even the national air carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, has resumed domestic flights to Tigray.

Girls hold a banner in support of the recent peace deal agreed between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray forces
Ethiopians have been calling on all sides to stick to the peace dealImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Consolidating the deal

"They [Baerbock and Colonna] want to make sure that the peace talks that resulted in the signing of the cessation of hostilities between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front would work and to make sure that arrangement would bring lasting peace to Ethiopia," Mengistu Assefa, a political analyst and commentator in Addis Ababa, told DW.

The European Union is one of the African Union's biggest donors. However, Ethiopia did not invite the EU to the peace talks, which resulted in the signing of the agreement in Pretoria, South Africa. According to some observers, that decision led to some discontent in Brussels.

"All relationships of EU member states [with Ethiopia] have been difficult during the conflict in Tigray in the last two years," said Annette Weber, the EU special representative to the Horn of Africa.

"But the German relationships have been very long-standing, very reliable relations that have been profound," she told DW. "And what we see right now is warming up again after the peace agreement was signed."

Passengers disembark from an Ethiopian Airlines plane
Ethiopian Airlines resumed flights to Tigray in December after a two-year suspensionImage: Million Haileselassie/DW

Mending broken relations between Ethiopia, EU

Relations between the European Union and Ethiopia declined after the Tigray civil war broke out, Mengistu said.

"The European Union was critical of the Ethiopian government, especially on how it handled the civil war due to reports of violations of human rights law," said Mengistu. "That led to cuts in development assistance to the Ethiopian government."

Now that the peace agreement is holding so far, there has been an improvement in relations between Addis Ababa and Brussels. "That's likely to continue if there is progress in the peace process with gradual reinstatement of development financing," said William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.

"The major issue here is the positioning of the major European Union member states, particularly France and Germany, which at times have taken a somewhat softer line on the [Ethiopian] federal government than the EU institutions themselves," he said.

As the peace process advances, Davison said, "we're likely to see that softer, more accommodating approach taken by the EU's member states, but also from the institutions themselves." This, he added, would lead to a gradual improvement in relations between the European Union and Ethiopia.

Emotional new year reunion for families in Tigray

EU supporting humanitarian work and accountability

Weber said Baerbock and Colonna's visit sought to acknowledge that a peace deal was inked after two years of a very, very bloody and destructive war.

"The two sides have now agreed to build up humanitarian access again and begin the healing process. So the basis is humanitarian access, the basis is a cease-fire, the basis is accountability," she said.

"But, of course, the steps that are necessary between now and then are still plenty," Weber said. "That's the messaging that will be delivered by the two foreign ministers."

Weber said the European Union had long engaged in ongoing discussions and communication between the sides. For example, the bloc fought hard to gain access to humanitarian aid for Tigray.

After TPLF fighters pushed from Tigray into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, sending many people fleeing, the EU worked to resettle those who had fled their homes. 

"All the member states and the EU have played quite an important role without being in the limelight," she said, adding that the European Union has been clear that there won't be a normalization until and unless the conflict has been resolved and humanitarian access and services are restored.

Map of Ethiopia

Rebuilding mutual trust

During the height of the conflict, Ethiopia's government was of the view that the European Union supported the TPLF and sought to force concessions from Prime Minister Abiy.

"The Ethiopian government felt that the EU stood against it by supporting the Tigrayan rebels and wanted to push Ethiopia by putting undue pressure on it," said Mengistu. 

"That stance, that rhetoric, was widely sold domestically," Mengistu added. "It was very impactful on the international arena by pushing Ethiopia to side with the usual [EU] rivals — such as China and Russia — especially in discussions on the conflict at the UN Security Council meetings."

At the grassroots and elite levels, Mengistu said, there is a strong anti-Western feeling that will probably persist and continue to affect Ethiopia's foreign policy.

Mengistu urged the German and French foreign ministers to seize the opportunity to restore relations with Ethiopia in order to benefit global cooperation.

Qin greets Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Ethiopia on his first official trip abroad earlier this weekImage: Fana Broadcasting Corporate

Geopolitical battle on the Horn of Africa

The visit by Baerbock and Colonna comes just days after China's new foreign minister, Qin Gang, began a weeklong tour of African nations, including Ethiopia.

Before Qin's visit, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was also in Ethiopia, where he witnessed the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Mengistu said the Horn of Africa had become the focal point of a geopolitical rivalry. He said France might want to explore ways to rebuild bilateral relations that soured during the conflict. For example, France canceled its assistance to Ethiopia's navy project and now seeks to resume it as Moscow is also competing for the same project.

Mengistu said the European Union's critical stance on Ethiopia could be diffused after the two influential EU member states start to court Abiy.

Edited by: Keith Walker