European leaders propose over one billion euros in financial aid to Tunisia, in addition to investments in undersea data cables and renewable energy.
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — European leaders visiting Tunisia on Sunday offered more than one billion euros in financial aid to help stabilize the North African nation’s economy and strengthen border security in an effort to reduce migration from its shores to Europe and restore stability.
A Tunisian rights organization denounced the EU proposal as ”blackmail,” claiming that it would exacerbate the mistreatment of migrants and shut Europe’s doors to those in need.
The increasingly autocratic president of Tunisia hosted the leaders of Italy, the Netherlands, and the European Commission for discussions intended to pave the way for an international financial rescue of the struggling nation.
On the eve of the talks, the president of Tunisia, Kais Saied, made an unannounced visit to a migrant camp in the coastal city of Sfax, a major departure point for boats traversing the Mediterranean to Italy. Saied addressed families residing in the camp and implored for international aid for Africans transiting through Tunisia to reach Europe.
His compassionate remarks and images of the president with migrant babies posted on his Facebook page starkly contrasted with Saied’s position earlier this year. He stoked racial animus against Black African migrants in Tunisia by ranting against an alleged conspiracy to erase his country’s Arab identity in a speech.
Sunday, the president and prime minister of Tunisia, Najla Bouden, met with Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, and European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
Following the discussions, von der Leyen announced a five-point program to assist Tunisia, including up to 1.05 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in debt relief for the country’s budget. She stated that the proposal will be discussed with all 27 EU member states at their next summit in late June.
In addition, the EU is discussing investments in broadband and other digital infrastructure for Tunisia, as well as 300 million euros in hydrogen and other renewable energy initiatives, according to von der Leyen.
She stated that the proposal also includes 100 million euros for border operations in Tunisia, including search-and-rescue and anti-smuggling operations. In response to criticism from migrant advocacy groups regarding forced repatriations and mistreatment of migrants in Tunisia, von der Leyen and Rutte asserted the program would adhere to international human rights standards.
The objective is to eliminate the cynical business model of boat smugglers. Rutte stated that migration is currently one of the most significant issues we all face.
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), an organization that advocates for migrants, expressed concern regarding the European aid proposal.
“Europe has not viewed Tunisia as a country in need of cooperation based on genuine democracy guaranteeing rights and freedoms, but rather as an advanced border point requiring more equipment to contain immigration, with the goal that no one should be able to reach Europe,” the European Union said in a statement released on Sunday.
“Their visits conceal extortion and an attempt to negotiate: money and assistance in exchange for the position of border patrolman.”
Meloni, who was making her second voyage in a week to Tunisia, attaches a great deal of importance to preventing migration. Italy is the most popular destination for North African migrants seeking to enter Europe.
Meloni praised the announcements made on Sunday and expressed optimism that they would pave the way for Tunisia to receive $1.9 billion in stalled International Monetary Fund assistance.
Saied has rejected the conditions for the IMF loan, which include cuts to flour and fuel subsidies, reductions to the large public administration sector, and the privatization of public enterprises with a loss-making record.
Such actions, according to the president, would spark social unrest, and he rebels at what he calls Western dictates. The population is already disillusioned with Saied’s leadership and the country’s decade-long experiment with democracy, and the economy is on the verge of catastrophe.
This has prompted an increasing number of Tunisians to embark on perilous boat journeys across the Mediterranean in search of a better existence. Additionally, Tunisia is a significant migration hub for sub-Saharan Africans heading to Europe.
“Tunisia is a priority because destabilization in Tunisia would have severe repercussions for the stability of all of Northern Africa, and these repercussions will inevitably reach us,” Meloni said Thursday.
Saied did not respond promptly to the European offer.
This week, he stated that addressing Tunisia’s problems requires not only enhanced security, but also “tools to eliminate misery, poverty, and deprivation.”
While focusing on migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, he acknowledged that Tunisians also seek to emigrate and are among the thousands who perish each year in the Mediterranean. He blamed both criminal networks and the budget woes of his government.
The COVID-19 pandemic and repercussions from Russia’s conflict in Ukraine exacerbated Tunisia’s budget deficit. Political tensions and Saied’s opposition to the mandated reforms halted the IMF aid. Saied has disbanded parliament, rewritten the constitution to give the presidency more authority, and supervised a crackdown on opposition figures and independent media.
Friday, the Fitch ratings agency further downgraded Tunisia’s default rating, bringing the country’s prospective debt default closer.
The visit comes after EU member states ratified a plan to share responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization on Thursday. The scheme is still in its infancy.
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