By: Ameni Naffeti.
In July, a group of European politicians, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, secured a new agreement with Tunisian President Kais Saied.
The agreement was not limited to the EU’s relationship with Tunisia; rather, it could serve as a model for similar agreements with other countries in which the EU intended to combine cooperation on migration with economic engagement. However, this did not last long.
This week, the Tunisian government announced that it would not accept an instalment of funds from the EU, including direct budget support and assistance for migration management, because it deemed it to be an inadequate implementation of both the letter and the spirit of the July agreement.
Relations between the EU and Tunisia have been tumultuous for the past few weeks. There is still some confusion on the EU side as to what exactly Tunisia’s government is objecting to.
In September, following a heated debate in the European Parliament regarding Tunisia, Tunisia denied entrance to a delegation of European parliamentarians. The visit of a European Commission delegation was postponed last week.
Even though the future of this relationship is uncertain, the tragic errors and misunderstandings of the past few months have already provided a valuable lesson for EU policy. The Tunisia case is not a model for other agreements; rather, it serves as a reminder that a deal on paper without a more genuine, broader agreement will soon fall apart.
Fundamentally, the problems with the EU-Tunisia agreement stem from a persistent dearth of agreement and a shared objective on multiple levels. The EU itself is the first level.
The Tunisia agreement was a product of the European Commission, influenced by the perspectives of member states. Meloni, the right-wing Italian prime minister, played a pivotal role in securing the agreement and establishing it as a model for future agreements. However, the EU has not reached a consensus on this matter.
In the weeks following the agreement, the European Parliament and diplomats from a wide variety of countries, including Germany, expressed explicit dissatisfaction with both the agreement itself and its role as a model for expansion. Some of this frustration was procedural; the commission’s decision to move forward with the agreement without adequate consultation may have violated EU rules.
Other opposition is more normative, pertaining to the grave violations of human rights against migrants in Tunisia over the past few months, the country’s rapid descent into authoritarian rule, and the escalation of political prisoners. Numerous European policymakers have expressed doubts about the viability of a deeper partnership on migration in light of these issues.
The EU Ombudsman has recently asked the European Commission to explain how the treaty will ensure that human rights are respected, and has given the Commission until December to respond. Without an internal consensus on this matter, the EU may not be a reliable party to this agreement.
The second disagreement between the EU and the Tunisian government undermines the EU-Tunisia agreement. While the July visit produced photo opportunities and a text that pointed to a variety of prospective areas for collaboration, it did not give the impression that Tunisian and European policymakers had a truly shared vision regarding economic cooperation and migration governance. That is because none exist.
Considering the actual practice of migration governance in Tunisia, for instance, where Saied’s dabbling in various discriminatory narratives should have been a red flag for a long time, as well as economic cooperation and Tunisia’s economic future, there are still divergent interests.
One example is that the vast majority of the potential funds mentioned by the EU are dependent on Tunisia reaching a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, a process that has been stalled for some time and revolves around extremely contentious issues regarding Tunisian state expenditures and subsidies.
Moreover, the lack of trust between both parties is becoming increasingly evident. This is also due to the fact that each side speaks predominantly to its internal audience. What Meloni and other European politicians intend to project to their constituents is diametrically opposed to what Saied intends to project.
While the president of Tunisia’s policies and priorities have frequently been inconsistent, his insistence on Tunisian sovereignty and reliance on a discourse of national self-determination have been consistent and must be considered very seriously.
The third lack of accord that undermines the relationship between the EU and Tunisia is internal to Tunisia. While Saied has dismantled the country’s democratic institutions in order to accumulate enormous presidential power, his political rhetoric has frequently been somewhat antagonistic.
He has made it plain what he does not want: foreign dictates, subsidy cuts, and being the EU’s migration manager. However, he has been less explicit on his vision for Tunisia’s economic development in relation to migration and the role of international actors.
Some of this may be a negotiation tactic, but it is increasingly unclear whether any clear vision actually exists, and whether it would be compatible not only with the preferences of international partners, but with the domestic political actors and institutions that would be required to implement it. In the absence of this, Saied is a highly unreliable and dysfunctional partner due to confusion and public spats with the EU.
There is a possibility that Saied is out of sync not only with other state actors in Tunisia, but also with the Tunisian people. Any deeper engagement between the EU and Tunisia would inevitably have significant long-term consequences for the country’s populace.
All the confusion surrounding the EU-Tunisia deal has significant implications for the EU’s foreign policy and its relations with Tunisia. This agreement serves as a reminder that written agreements do not provide solutions unless there is greater alignment and a shared vision among the involved parties – including the EU and its partners.
This will be impossible without a more serious approach to humanitarian issues and a thorough recognition of the political context in places like Tunisia. A failure to do so is likely to result in further confusion, which, as the ongoing tragedies in the Mediterranean and the deteriorating living conditions in an increasingly authoritarian Tunisia demonstrate, has real and severe humanitarian consequences.
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