Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Europe’s Stance on Ethiopia

Testing the waters: German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy

After the signing of a peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Tigray, a debate has opened up within the EU over how quickly to normalise relations with Ethiopia.

Divisions have emerged inside the EU about what approach to take towards Ethiopia, and how to deal with the simmering conflict in the northern Tigray region. The European Council discussed the issue on 23 January. Going into the meeting, the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that Ethiopia was one of the issues on the table, but, as he put it: ‘[the] most important, as always, is going to be the war in Ukraine’. No further information was provided about the progress that was made, but details have emerged in background briefings.

The debate follows a high-profile visit to Addis Ababa by the French and German foreign ministers earlier this month. Their trip came after peace agreements signed in Pretoria and Nairobi in November last year between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan leaders aimed at ending the war that erupted two years earlier. Germany’s Annalena Baerbock and France’s Catherine Colonna held a series of meetings with senior Ethiopian politicians and international aid officials, culminating in discussions with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 12 January.

The ministers reiterated calls for accountability for widespread abuses committed during the Tigray conflict as a condition for the EU normalising relations with the country. Colonna said implementing the peace deal and following through on promises of accountability was the condition for Europe’s re-engagement. ‘There is no peace that can be lasting without justice’, she said after talks with Abiy.

Her colleague, Baerbock, highlighted crimes including ‘systematic sexualised violence’ committed during the two-year conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have died. ‘I would like to say, as a female foreign minister, no, it is not normal that rapes are part of wars’, Baerbock said.

Ethiopia is keen for a normalisation of relations after the EU (one of the country’s largest donors) suspended budgetary support for Ethiopia shortly after the conflict in Tigray began in November 2020, citing gross human rights abuses. This led to a serious rift between Brussels and Addis Ababa. ‘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’, argued Mengistu Assefa, an Ethiopian political analyst. ‘That led to cuts in development assistance to the Ethiopian government’. Annette Weber, the EU Special Representative to the Horn of Africa, accepted this. ‘All relationships of EU member states [with Ethiopia] have been difficult during the conflict in Tigray in the last two years’, she explained.

Now that the peace agreement appears to be holding, there has been a thaw 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.

There is increasing concern in European circles about the danger of ‘losing’ Africa to the Chinese and Russians

Abiy is facing serious economic difficulties, with little remaining foreign exchange reserves. The credit agency Fitch has downgraded Ethiopia to ‘CCC’ status, implying that it is no longer investable and a serious credit risk. Fitch says Ethiopia has less than a month’s worth of foreign exchange reserves left – having spent heavily on foreign weapons during the war – and that access to IMF funding is dependent on donors lifting their restrictions on lending when sufficient progress has been made on human rights.

The European Debate

If the Ethiopian government is under pressure, so are the Europeans. There is increasing concern about the danger of ‘losing’ Africa to the Chinese and Russians. Chinese investments have lured African leaders in need of funding, while the Wagner Group has extended President Vladimir Putin’s reach across many African states.

This is the background to the recent European Council discussions. The German and French foreign ministries had made their views plain to their EU colleagues. They have been pushing for the European External Action Service to publish a roadmap for normalising relations with Addis Ababa. Getting the Ethiopians to agree to accountability for the abuses that have taken place during the war ‘will take time’, Baerbock and Colonna argued, and should not be allowed to hold up re-engagement with the Ethiopians now.

They made no reference to the role of the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia in uncovering the abuses committed during the conflict. Instead, they implied that a joint investigation involving the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and international experts would be adequate. This is worrying international observers, who recall the joint UN–Ethiopian Human Rights Commission report published in November 2021. Its critics regarded the report as neither impartial nor independent. Without the UN’s full participation, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is unlikely to provide a rigorous assessment of the killings and sexual abuse that took place during more than two years of fighting.

Other EU countries are seeking clarity on the options that lie before them. They are likely to push for Borrell to put the issue officially on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council in February, with a formal position to be made public.

Borrell is well informed about the Tigray conflict and is one of those who suggested that it was on the cards before the first shots were fired on the night of 3–4 November 2020. As he warned in a tweet at the time: ‘EU very concerned about recent developments. All parties must act to reduce tension, eliminate inflammatory language and abstain from provocative military deployments. Failure to do so risks destabilising the country and wider region.’

The problem for Brussels and Washington is how to deal with the Horn of Africa so that the Tigray war does not flare up again, without pushing Addis Ababa or Asmara to move closer to Beijing or Moscow

His concerns went unheeded, but Borrell has remained engaged with the issue ever since. During the EU Council discussions on 23 January, he thanked the German and French ministers for their visit and debriefing. EU Development Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen gave an overview of a possible route forward, but urged the ministers not to be over-hasty in lifting the sanctions they had imposed until there was verified progress in the peace agreement. She described the lack of progress on the ending of the conflict and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces as a ‘major concern’. Her position was that direct budget support by the EU could only be considered once the peace process was more advanced and progress had been confirmed. This position was endorsed by all the EU ministers who spoke.

Russia and China

The Europeans are acting in the context of growing Russian and Chinese involvement in the Horn of Africa. China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang included Ethiopia in a five-country tour of Africa earlier this month. Apart from meeting Abiy and inaugurating a new centre for disease control, there was little that emerged from the visit. There was no suggestion of Ethiopia’s estimated debt to China of $13.7 billion being rescheduled.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is to visit the Eritrean capital, Asmara, to deliver a personal invitation to President Isaias Afwerki to attend the forthcoming Russian-African summit, scheduled for July. Grigory Lukyanov of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences is quoted as saying: ‘The basis of possible Russian-Eritrean cooperation is the prospect of Russia's profitable economic penetration into the strategic region of the Horn of Africa as a potential “entry point” to African markets as a whole.’ Eritrea is one of the few African countries to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, backing Moscow’s stand at the UN.

The Europeans and the US are well aware of the increasing African penetration of the Russians and Chinese. Beijing has used loans and development, while Moscow has the Wagner group operating in a number of countries across the continent and is due to conduct joint military exercises with South Africa. The problem for Brussels and Washington is how to deal with the Horn of Africa so that the Tigray war does not flare up again, without pushing Addis Ababa or Asmara to move closer to Beijing or Moscow.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.


Martin Plaut

View profile


Explore our related content