The European Union says Tunisia is ‘free to cancel’ a payment request and ‘wire back’ the money it already received.
Brussels and Tunis have clashed over the financing of an agreement intended at reducing irregular migration into Europe, highlighting the dangers of the EU relying on autocratic regimes for its immigration policy.
Oliver Varhelyi, the EU’s neighbourhood commissioner, said Tunisia was “free to cancel” its financial request and “wire back the money” it had already received in unusually harsh terms. The commissioner wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that an EU-Tunisia migration agreement “should continue once [Tunis] returns to the spirit of our strategic partnership based on mutual respect”.
His comments came after Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, earlier this week accused the EU of not honoring a July agreement to pay Tunisia more than €250 million in an effort to reduce a recent spike in the number of migrants traversing the Mediterranean Sea from the north African nation.
Brussels refuted Saied’s claim, stating that it had already transferred €60 million to Tunis.
The dispute with Saied has heightened tensions within the EU regarding the agreement’s terms and human rights concerns in the north African country. The limitations of the agreement championed by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni have been revealed by the unusually high number of Tunisian migrants arriving in Italy.
Several member states and the EU’s chief of foreign policy, Josep Borrell, as well as the EU council president, Charles Michel, have criticized the commission for negotiating without sufficient consultation.
“Before its signing, the EU council had not deliberated or approved the memorandum with Tunisia. However, this should be the norm,” said Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn.
Humanitarian organizations and some member states have expressed concern over the lack of human rights protections in the agreement, as the Tunisian government has been accused of abandoning migrants in the desert along the Libyan border.
“I regret that the memorandum of understanding does not include stronger messages on human rights, the rule of law, and democratic principles,” said Asselborn.
The interior minister of Cyprus, Constantinos Ioannou, told the Financial Times that the agreement with Tunisia required time to take effect and that it was already influencing migration flows.
“Had that plan not been implemented, perhaps the flows from Tunisia would have been double what they are now,” said Ioannou.
Several EU diplomats and officials have acknowledged that Tunisia is not an easy partner, but they do not see any viable alternatives to the agreement. “It may not function. But we have no choice but to negotiate,” said a senior EU diplomat.
Despite the controversies surrounding the Tunisia agreement, member states continue to hold it up as a model for similar agreements with other nations in northern Africa, namely Egypt and Morocco, to control migration.
“We hope that this time the council will be involved,” said a senior EU diplomat.
Analysts and activists have pointed out the limitations of signing agreements with countries with feeble state institutions while ignoring their internal problems.
Tunisia does not have a functioning visa or asylum system that could register the scores of people from other African countries arriving there before they try and reach Europe.
Riccardo Fabiani, a north Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group, stated, “We are trying to outsource a very complex problem that we as Europeans are struggling to manage ourselves to countries that are actually much poorer… and that have state bureaucracies and security forces that are obviously underresourced.”
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