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Wednesday, 12 October 2005 - Brussels OJ edition

Situation in Ethiopia

  President. – The next item is the Commission statement on the situation in Ethiopia.


  Louis Michel, Member of the Commission. (FR) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I welcome the coordinated action of the European Union in the management of this crisis. The UK Presidency, the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, and myself have maintained continuous high-level contacts.

The message from the European Union, which was relayed by the troika at Addis Ababa, was, and is, to call on all of the political parties to keep the electoral process and the political dialogue on track. I also welcome the progress made since 2 October in the dialogue between the government and the opposition. In actual fact, there was a serious risk of derailment, which threatened to lead the country into a scenario from which there was positively no way back. On that occasion, I wrote to the Prime Minister to express my concern regarding the climate of tension among the various political forces and the need to keep all of the channels of communication open. Releasing all of the political prisoners and reopening the offices of the opposition parties, which were closed by the authorities, will be steps in this direction.

I observed with a great deal of interest the opening session of the Ethiopian Federal Parliament and the reelection of the Prime Minister, Mr Zenawi, on 10 and 11 October. The proper and normal functioning of Parliament is a prerequisite for a multi-party political scene in Ethiopia being established and for democracy in the country taking root. I met Prime Minister Zenawi on three occasions prior to this phase. On each occasion, I firmly reiterated our expectations with regard to how the opposition should be dealt with. I believe that that is absolutely crucial. If, within the Ethiopian Parliament, the largest opposition party – the CUD – were to continue to be absent, this could become a factor of instability. The same would be true if the new majority were not to be introduced for the running of the capital, Addis Ababa.

I am convinced that the European Union must continue to be involved in a constructive, yet firm and demanding, dialogue with all of the parties in order to continue to have a positive bearing and influence on the process under way in Ethiopia. This is what I intend to see happen in the framework of the political dialogue.

I should like to make one final remark: I am concerned about the renewed tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The European Union must also exercise vigilance in this respect.


  Anders Wijkman, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. (SV) Mr President, many of us believed that, with the May election, there was a democratic breakthrough in Ethiopia. How wrong we were! In the very days following the election, the Meles government showed that it had difficulty accepting that the opposition had had great success. Laws were made, restricting the opposition’s ability to act. The regime is again exercising tight control over the media, there have been repeated arrests of opposition politicians, and peaceful demonstrations have been brutally crushed by the security police, something that led to more than 40 deaths in June.

The events of the last few days unfortunately confirm the picture. The negotiations between the opposition and the government party broke down a few days ago after the government had refused to discuss what, in my view, was a quite natural desire for democratic reforms. As a consequence, a number of opposition members chose not to attend parliament’s forthcoming sitting. The consequence was a law removing these members’ immunity. Those members of the opposition who did attend the sitting were refused the right to participate in the proceedings.

We in this House know that such methods have nothing to do with democracy. In the resolution we are now debating, we are going through the events following the May election. Our intention is not, in the first place, to criticise the government and the government party. Our intention is partly to show the unease, identical to that expressed by Commissioner Michel, that we feel about the developments in Ethiopia and partly to call on both parties to begin negotiations and make use of the opportunity for peaceful and democratic development in Ethiopia, as strongly supported by the May election.

The EU wishes to contribute to positive development in Ethiopia and, in particular, to support the work designed to reduce poverty, but all that can only succeed within the framework of conditions in which the principles of democracy are respected, as well as human freedoms and rights. This is something that the Meles government needs to work on. Otherwise, it is in danger of losing its friends, something that, in the end, would have repercussions for the poor population.


  Ana Maria Gomes, on behalf of the PSE Group. Mr President, last time I took the floor I said I was very much concerned. I still am. There were indeed very interesting developments since 1 October 2005 with negotiations being engaged, then brokered with the assistance of donor countries and ambassadors. However, according to my information, a stalemate still exists despite the fact that the Ethiopian Parliament has already been convened. The conduct of business, according to my information, is very deficient in terms of democratic standard.

I appreciate the statement by Commissioner Michel and I appreciate the efforts he has been making. I wish the Council and the British Presidency, in particular, would also give us their views on how things are working and if they think that their approach is effective. I am particularly concerned and I am aware of the special relationship the British Presidency holds with our allies on the other side of the Atlantic. The unity of the international community and of the donor communities in this respect is essential. I would like to hear the Council’s approach on this.

I will not go further as I am still the head of the European Union election observation mission in Ethiopia. Naturally, I may make other comments after I deliver my final report. However, it is only proper that this Parliament shows that it cares and that it continues to closely monitor the situation in Ethiopia.


  Fiona Hall, on behalf of the ALDE Group. Mr President, I was part of the European Parliament delegation which observed the polling day on 15 May. I spoke for the delegation at the press conference on 17 May, saying that the elections represented an important step forward in the democratisation process in Ethiopia. Therefore I feel great personal sadness and shock at the deterioration in the situation since then.

Regarding the election, we must keep faith with the facts observed by the European Union observation mission and the Carter Center, which are that the process leading up to the 15 May was well run, but that the process after 15 May had some irregularities.

It is now five months since the election. The whole point of a democratic election is to put in place a functioning democratic assembly. This has not happened, and I would beseech sides – the ruling party and the opposition – to continue the dialogue to resolve their differences. Unless the end result is a functioning Parliament in which politicians of all persuasions are active, then the election process has ultimately failed. Surely that would be a betrayal of the 90% of Ethiopian electors who cast a vote on 15 May, often after queuing for many hours. They had faith in the electoral process. I hope the leaders they elected will keep to that faith.

Clearly the Government has a responsibility to respect the fundamental principles of the constitution and ensure fundamental freedoms and human rights. The Ethiopian Government must guarantee that opposition party members are not intimidated or detained without trial. The Government also needs to reopen access for opposition parties to the media.

In the run-up to 15 May, parties all had good access, but this is no longer the case. The fact that opposition leaders who have stated their commitment to working within a constitutional framework cannot easily communicate through the media to their own supporters is particularly dangerous at a time when everybody needs to stay calm.

There are no winners in the current impasse. If the political process breaks down, then it is not just the opposition parties in Ethiopia who will be the losers. Ethiopia as a nation will be the loser, because it will go overnight from being a leading light in Africa, a beacon for hope and progress whose President chaired the Commission for Africa, to becoming a failed state.

I do not think Ethiopia deserves to become the latest African basket case. So I would plead with all parties to persevere with the negotiation process.


  Margrete Auken, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. (DA) Mr President, the human rights situation in Ethiopia is very worrying. Having observed a splendid and peaceful election – I myself was part of the delegation – in which we were genuinely moved to see the terrific turnout, what has happened since is frightening. Hundreds have been arrested, the big opposition parties’ offices have been stripped and locked, the media have been monopolised and it is impossible for the opposition to express itself in public and, by now, at all in parliament. The government’s attitude and actions are dramatically exacerbating the situation.

This constant humiliation of the opposition leaders is of course helping to create an incredibly tense and dangerous situation in Ethiopia. Other speakers have gone over what has happened. Once the opposition had accepted the outcome of the election, they were denied the opportunity of working in Parliament.

I think, of course, that it is our task to do our utmost to prevent violence from taking over, but I am not entirely certain that we best achieve political solutions merely by being discreet in our method of working. I believe it has to be said very loud and clear that this Parliament is critical of the way in which opposition and democracy are being crushed in Ethiopia at present, and I very much hope that, with this debate and with the resolution we are having adopted, we shall get the Commission to state very clearly that negotiations now need seriously to be got under way. Political solutions are also needed, but all that these more discreet efforts of ours have involved so far is further humiliation and destruction of the opposition. However, we must, of course, all do what we can to ensure that matters do not get out of hand.


  Luisa Morgantini, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group. – (IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, building a democracy is not a simple matter: the path is full of ups and downs. I too observed the elections and saw the voters participate in an extremely important democratic process, which has, however, been upset by disturbing events.

I should like to congratulate the Commission for the part it has played on this occasion and offer my thanks not only to the European Union representative in Ethiopia, Mr Tim Clarke – to whom I send my regards – for the exceptional work he has done, but also to Mrs Gomes for the great wisdom she has shown in this situation. It is all too easy to shout and condemn, but I think that it is much more difficult to try to manage a process like the one in Ethiopia, which is extremely complex.

I applaud the Commission for its role in encouraging dialogue and cooperation and putting pressure on all those involved: on the government and the forces of the majority party but also on the opposition parties, since these too have different ways of proceeding and acting.

Clearly it is always the strongest party, and therefore the Ethiopian Government, that bears the heaviest responsibilities. It is nevertheless important to continue working towards cooperation and dialogue, so as to try to make the democratic process a reality.


  Rainer Wieland (PPE-DE). – (DE) Mr President, as a member of the delegation of short-term observers, I should like to thank particularly the long-term observers for the work they have done. The text as proposed states that the Ethiopians have demonstrated their faith in democracy. I think they have done more than that; they have made their dignity a matter of record and proved themselves fit for democracy. It is they above all who deserve our gratitude and the gratitude of the spirit of democracy.

Once, in Ethiopia, at six o’clock in the morning, I counted a queue of 150 people; around noon, I saw 1 500 of them in various polling stations. Like me, Mrs Gomes saw elderly people queuing up for hours on end without food or water and then casting their votes with broad grins. At a time when fewer and fewer of our own electorate were turning out to vote, it was in Ethiopia that I rediscovered democracy’s ‘sex appeal– if I might be permitted to use that frank and sloppy term. I saw how beautiful democracy can be!

We also, however, saw how fragile the democratic process can be, with people whispering ‘please don’t go!’ to us as we left the polling stations. We saw the sort of reputation the European Union has, and the faith people place in it as an entity that not only parades its ideals before it like a banner, but is also prepared to stand up for them, and, speaking personally, let me say that I have before never been so proud to wear the European Union’s ‘ring of stars’.

We also had the experience of hearing people who were election observers say that, once the count was over, they were going to disappear for a few days for their own safety. When we were in Addis Ababa, we often heard it said that the government might not be willing to relinquish office, but also that the opposition might not be willing and able to assume it. In conditions of such insecurity, the European Union was well advised to be guided by caution.

Subsequent events have shown, though, that the government will probably not be able to remain in office, and that the opposition is better able than we had thought to exercise power. The caution evident in these resolutions is something that we should progressively abandon.


  Michael Gahler (PPE-DE). – (DE) Mr President, the situation in Ethiopia is becoming less stable with every day that passes, and responsibility for that rests primarily with the government. Whilst the 90% turnout is an expression of the Ethiopian people’s confidence in the democratic process, the government was evidently seized with panic as soon as the first results became known.

I endorse the intention of Mrs Gomes, the EU’s principal election observer, to deliver an objective and truthful report, and the usual suspects, not least here in Brussels, who, where Africa is concerned, would prefer to carry on working with the status quo, and whose associates find democratic elections rather disturbing, should be wary of making improper proposals in this House with the aim of relativising the knowledge that has actually been gained.

It is unfortunate that our American friends, too, currently seem to have fallen prey to the same temptation. I warn against doing likewise, for that will do nothing to establish either democracy or lasting stability, or even to combat international terrorism.

It is important that the government and the opposition should, despite all that has happened since 15 May, put the country’s interests first and resume dialogue. Although our diplomats in Addis Ababa, too, are rendering a valuable service in this respect, the creation of confidence is, above all, an obligation upon the government, and so they should re-amend the parliament’s rules of procedure so that the opposition can at least avail itself of its rights under the constitution; it should restore the immunity of those members who did not attend the opening session, and also that of Addis Ababa city council; I also call on them to release the political prisoners and guarantee the opposition access to the media.

If they are not prepared to create the conditions for democracy, they are showing their true colours as yet another example of what we have seen so often in Africa, namely that elections are regarded as acceptable only if they confirm the existing government. That, though, is not what they are for. Ninety per cent of Ethiopians have stated what they expect of democratic elections and the government must accept their judgment upon it.


  Ursula Stenzel (PPE-DE). – (DE) Mr President, Commissioner, it is surprising that I should take the floor to speak about the worsening crisis in Ethiopia, but it is a country about which I care a great deal, because it is where one of my compatriots, Karlheinz Böhm, has people working for the good of others, and he keeps on mobilising aid – aid that is a drop in the ocean.

That makes it, in my view, all the more regrettable that the democratic experiment in Ethiopia is threatening to fail by reason of the government’s manifest inability to accept the democratic facts and guarantee the opposition its basic rights. I call on the Commission to go beyond appeals and fine words and make it clear that aid from it will not be forthcoming until there is progress towards democracy, and will back this up with conditions attached to the aid.

I am also very much in favour of sending an ad hoc committee of this House to Ethiopia and support Mrs Gomes’ project. The more that the European Union – and every level of it – is visibly present the better, for we are thereby making it a matter of record that we will not allow the crisis in that country to get any worse.


  Louis Michel, Member of the Commission. (FR) Mr President, I shall be very brief because, in fact, I agree to a very large extent with what has been said in this House. I should also like to congratulate and to thank Mrs Gomes for having kept her head during certain moments, which I can understand must have been trying for her. I thank her for having seen this observation mission through in an entirely positive and proper manner. I should also like to join with those who thanked Mr Clark: it must not have been easy doing his job every day.

My belief, in fact, is that if, within a rather short timeframe, the Prime Minister does not fulfil a minimum number of our expectations, then it will be extremely difficult to pursue the political dialogue as things currently stand. That is what I truly believe. I am among those who have demonstrated a great deal of understanding towards what took place there. All of these messages have been sent to the Prime Minister. I sometimes have the feeling that – and I do not really know why this is the case – he does not thoroughly understand the full extent of the risk to which he is exposing his country. We have put pressure on him. I have also spoken at great length with the members of the opposition to urge them to take up their seats in Parliament in order to make the parliamentary institution function. That being said, it is clear that, in return, the Prime Minister must now send out a number of signals that are along the same lines as what we are hoping for.

As regards the issue of suspending cooperation, I believe that, at this stage, we cannot consider starting a formal procedure aimed at suspending development cooperation. Under Article 8 of the Cotonou Agreements, the dialogue is always open, and I believe that this dialogue is the most appropriate means of keeping the door open and of encouraging the parties to make constructive steps.

That being said, I am monitoring very closely how the political situation is developing, and I will not disguise from you the fact that even I, being very conscious of the dangers of a chaotic situation, am slowly beginning to grow impatient. We must now put maximum pressure on the Prime Minister so that he understands that democracy is not born out of unilateralism and that the opposition must be respected, taking into account, moreover, the election result. With these elections, in fact, we are in a whole different scenario, and if the Prime Minister wishes to continue to benefit from an a priori show of support from the international community, then he must make sure that he does not abuse it. That is what I believe. Therefore, I broadly agree, Mr President, with what has been said in this House.


  President. – The debate is closed.

To end this debate, I have received five motions for resolutions presented pursuant to Rule 103(2)(1).

The vote will take place tomorrow.

(The sitting was suspended at 8.05 p.m. and resumed at 9.05 p.m.)




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