On March 30 – April 1, a group of three EU parliamentarians from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the second largest grouping within the European Parliament after the European People’s Party (EPP), visited Ethiopia. Led by S & D Group President Gianni Pittella (pictured above), the visiting members included Cécile Kyenge MEP, ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly vice-president and Norbert Neuser MEP, S&D co-coordinator for the development committee. The trio have met with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and held discussions on various issues including the thorny topic of democracy, freedom of the press and human rights in Ethiopia, as well as migration and the current drought affecting the country. They have also met with various representatives from civil society organizations, the opposition and officials from the African Union (AU).
“The democratization process in Ethiopia must be supported in order to deeply reinforce democracy, human rights and a real freedom of the press. In Ethiopia, as in the rest of Africa, development cannot be detached from democracy,” Gianni Pittella told reporters afterwards. Norbert Neuser on his part reflected on the group’s discussion with the officials from the AU regarding the same topic. “During our first meetings with the African Union in Addis, we have insisted that democracy, rule of law and the respect for human rights must be at the heart of relations between the EU and Africa.” On her part, Cécile Kyenge emphasized on the topic when she said: “we call on African countries to improve their democratic systems, not only by the traditional confrontations among political parties, but also by allowing regional and local organizations to contribute to the political and economic wellbeing of society.”
At the end of the group’s visit Addis Standard’s Editor-in-Chief, Tsedale Lemma, was granted a brief opportunity to sit with Mr. Pittella for this exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Addis Standard – What is your reading or your understanding of what’s happening now in Ethiopia, particularly for the last five months?
Gianni Pittella – My opinion is the following: Ethiopia is assumed in these years [to have] a strong rule; a strong rule in the region, a strong rule in fighting terrorism, a strong rule to welcome and keep inside around 700 000 refuges. And I think that this country made also some progress in terms of economic and social development. For sure Ethiopia is not comparable with other African countries which suffer many problems that Ethiopia doesn’t suffer. Having said that, I immediately want to add that some problems remain open. This is “[sic]” for a country in development. And I think the Prime Minster is aware of that. It is necessary that all the positive things that I mentioned will be accompanied by a stronger effort to respect human rights, to expand democracy and to avoid any restriction of the freedom of the press.
AS – When it comes to pursuing your foreign policy you are often criticized for cushioning undemocratic governments such as the one in Ethiopia because it is your ally in the fight against terrorism, is containing mass migration and its economy is growing, which are all true. But many people don’t look at it from that perspective only. The political situation within Ethiopia is neglected in that some even say it is a time bomb in wait; others worry if you continue pursuing your foreign policy of neglecting chronic human rights abuses you’ll have to deal with the same problem that Syria is producing today. What do you say to that? Do you see the connection between your silence and its potential in tolerating a government like Ethiopia run its course?
GP – Well, there is no silence from me. I exclude a tradeoff between the action of the government in fighting terrorism and managing migrants and other things with our silence on the political lack of democracy, in [your] government’s decision to put in jail journalists and other forms of repression such as lack of respect for human rights. I am not in silence. I denounced these problems publicly and I denounced them in front of the Prime Minister. I told him [that] a real leadership doesn’t depend on repression. If one person, one political leader was to keep his power using these tools, he makes a great mistake. I told him. And apparently he answered positively; he told me how the concept of democracy evolved through the generations. He told me that he was happy that his daughter doesn’t obey him while he obeyed his father. He stressed a lot on the necessity to increase education. And in his opinion (and in this I agree) it’s true that more education helps to build a good democracy because democracy is made by the people. If the people are educated to the values of democracy we can build a strong and resilient democracy.
And when I speak about political partnership between Europe and Ethiopia and Africa I’d like to say that for us the questions of democracy are not sidelined by the economy. They are a priority. If we sign a political partnership, it’s useful for our partners to work to achieve democracy.
AS – But in Ethiopia things have been sliding back in terms of democracy, the issues of human rights, rule of law and freedom of the press. You have been in the Parliament since 1999, if I’m not mistaken. So you probably had a chance to see Ethiopia hold elections in 2005 and in 2010. The degenerating of parliamentary pluralism that you talked about earlier was disappearing into the thin air since the 2005 election. How does that fit into this explanation from our Prime Minister and into your personal belief as someone who strongly advocates for democratic values?
GP – There was no monitoring of the electoral process.
AS – That was for the last elections in May 2015. The EU has monitored the two elections, in 2005 and 2010, and declared it unfair.
GP – Personally I was not part of this monitoring. In my long European season, I made many things; I raised many, many issues. It’s clear for me that it’s a political anomaly to have a parliament composed of 100 per cent members of a ruling party. The first thing that I asked when I met the Ambassadors of the EU countries [here] was how is it possible that in a parliament there are only members of the ruling party? They told me that it’s the electoral system. But I remain doubtful of that.
AS – Let’s talk about the recent EU parliament resolution on Ethiopia which was adopted on the 21st of January. There is a debate here in Ethiopia because some say the parliament itself is just a paper tiger; others contest it will have a lot of impact in redefining the relationship between the EU and Ethiopia because it’s the strongest EU-led resolution by far. Others till argue the resolution is business as usual. The later seem to have been vindicated so far because none of the points that were mentioned in your resolution happened so far. What do we expect next?
GP – We will return to the questions. The political resolution is a tool that the European Parliament uses to blame, to denounce, to put on the table such situations. But we don’t have the power to force somebody to make something. It’s clear that we will insist in this direction.
AS – Are you telling me that there is no mechanism to follow on the implementation of recommendations on the resolution?
GP – We can make pressure on the Commission, on the member states to modify their relationship with the Ethiopian government if the Ethiopian government doesn’t change. But we don’t have this possibility – concrete possibility. We have the power to denounce politically some problems then if our resolution is not implemented by the government we ask the European Commission and member states to act because this resolution can be implemented. And if the situation continues, it’s possible to force it. I don’t hope for that, but it is possible to stop relationship. I don’t think this is in the interest of the Ethiopian government.
I can make an example. My group and the majority in the European Parliament now are asking to stop the fund for Eritrea. This is our reaction to the unfair regime. The Parliament asked the commission to stop the funding. This is another way. First of all we make a resolution. Secondly we push. Thirdly we verify the follow up. Fourthly we ask the commission and the member states to ask again the government to implement and if all that doesn’t happen, or doesn’t produce an outcome, there is a last chance to stop the financial support from the Commission.
AS – But you do face challenges to push it that far even from within the Parliament itself. For example shortly before the May 2015 elections in Ethiopia while the Parliament was discussing the situation in Ethiopia during its monthly plenary session MEPs like Louis Michel or James Carver have argued prioritizing EU’s relationship with Ethiopia based on regional stability. How challenging is that to push the issues of democracy and the rule of law?
GP – Our group is clearly, strongly in favor of keeping united the economic and social questions, the economic partnership with the respect of human right, freedom of the press and pluralism. We should not separate these things. We don’t accept any more, never.
AS – Do countries like Ethiopia confront you with any moral dilemma while dealing with their governments?
GP – No. For us there is no dilemma because the two things have to go together. This is our approach. This is the approach of the President of the Subcommittee for Human Right, Elena Valenciano, Socialist. This is the approach taken by Pier Antonio Panzeri, coordinator of the Socialist group in the Human Rights Committee. No dilemma.