Tunisians say €900m EU deal that links border control to aid is too little, too late

Tunisia has asked the EU to extend the deadline to sign a Memorandum of Understanding concerning migration in the Mediterranean

Senior EU and Tunisian officials held talks on the proposed aid package in Tunis on June 11. AFP
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In the past few weeks, Tunisia has taken a key role in world politics following back-to-back visits from EU officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, to negotiate a financial assistance deal.

The deal could be critical in terms of easing the growing migration crisis across the Mediterranean, and could also help debt-laden Tunisia avoid further economic failure.

But several prominent Tunisian commentators say that a critical aspect of the €900 million deal – €100 million in border control funding, to stem a growing influx of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa – is far from sufficient to bring change.

At around 11 per cent of the total aid, one expert told The National the border control funding is far from sufficient and Tunisia should press for more.

Last month, Ylva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, described the deal as "a good example of a comprehensive approach towards migration".

Right-wing backlash

In February President Kais Saied made a series of inflammatory remarks about sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia, many of whom are trying to reach Europe, but are often deported from the continent or perish at sea at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers.

While Mr Saied's remarks were widely condemned, the EU is pushing for deeper engagement on the issue, which has inflamed right-wing sentiment in both Europe and Tunisia.

The optics of the deal being about stemming migration were worsened by the presence of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at a June press conference on EU assistance in Tunis, also attended by Ms von der Leyen and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Ms Meloni, who has been criticised for a long history of far-right political stances, pledged full support for Tunisia in its current financial crisis.

What Tunis and Brussels both see as a catastrophe could overshadow many other aspects of the proposed EU aid.

The package includes funding for railways and internet infrastructure, as well as vital budget support, as Tunisia grapples with high inflation and debt amounting to 80 per cent of the country's GDP.

However, despite the EU's interest in co-operating on migration control as part of the deal, Tunisians are afraid that some of its clauses might create further tension in the country.

"We cannot accept a deal with Europe that does not respect human dignity," lawyer and human rights activist Ayachi Hammami told local radio station Mosaique on Monday.

"No solution can be found without the existence of internal solidarity and national unity [among Tunisians] in a way that would strengthen the Tunisian [state's] position."

A shift in diplomacy on the part of Tunis, from its previous attempt to present itself as the gatekeeper to Europe, has enabled the current government to make migration a major negotiation point, not only with the EU, but also with the International Monetary Fund.

Pragmatism and diplomacy

Mr Saied has repeatedly rejected claims that Tunis is only increasing maritime border control for Europe’s sake.

However, Tunisia must uphold previous international obligations relating to the prevention of migrant boat crossings, for which it has already received money.

Mr Saied's refusal both to allow migrants to settle in Tunisia, and for Tunis to be a gatekeeper to EU borders, has changed the tone of negotiations. EU authorities have now placed further support on the table, in a new deal that might be more beneficial for Tunisia.

Tunisia is an EU partner and is on our southern border; we have a keen interest in making sure that it does not collapse, and that is the work we are trying to do
EU diplomat

“It’s broader than just migration,” a European diplomatic source told journalists during a brief in Brussels.

“Tunisia is an EU partner and is on our southern border; we have a keen interest in making sure that it does not collapse, and that is the work we are trying to do,” the diplomat said.

A senior EU official also told The National that the bloc has been working on a comprehensive package for cooperation with Tunisia, but this deal also requires Tunis to engage positively with the IMF.

“An agreement with the IMF is key for the structural reforms that Tunisia badly needs,” the official told The National.

The approval of the EU's aid package remains on hold, as Tunisian authorities have requested the deadline be extended so they can further review some of the terms in the accompanying Memorandum of Understanding.

“Tunisia has every right to bargain using this [migration] file,” Hassan Boubakri, Professor of Geography at the University of Sousse and president of the Tunis Center for Migration and Asylum, told The National.

“The money that Europe has been giving is worth nothing when we know the level of the humanitarian crisis prevailing here,” he added.

Prof Boubakri believes it is important for Tunisia to ask the EU for further financial aid, not just to ensure border control, but also to grant a decent standard of living to those who have been prevented from crossing to Europe and are now the responsibility of the Tunisian state.

“Tunisia must stand up in its negotiations and say no when it’s needed. We must say that, if the bare minimum to cover the living expenses of people we stop from crossing to Europe is not covered, there is no point anymore in controlling our borders,” Prof Boubakri told The National.

This stance must be at the heart of the current negotiations, he said.

“Tunisia now has the upper hand in this whole deal. The EU has admitted on multiple occasions that the situation might get out of hand soon, and a Tunisian deal-breaker would only make the situation worse,” he said.

Several Tunisian experts have spoken in recent weeks about the need for Tunisia to use increased EU interest in boosting development and enabling the disbursement of further European funding, which could entice the IMF to unblock its promised bailout package.

Further support for the growing numbers of migrants in Tunisia is important, as there is currently no framework for sending them back to their countries due to the lack of repatriation treaties in place.

“You would need at least two years of negotiations for these treaties to be concluded and formally introduced,” Prof Boubakri explained.

“Tunisia now finds itself in a snare. On one hand, it has previous commitments that obligate it to control its maritime borders and prevent migrant boats from crossing, and on the other, it has no means to deport these people to their countries.”

“Europe’s policy has turned the Mediterranean into a big prison for us all, and Tunisia has become complicit,” argues Prof Boubakri.

He also accused the EU of having double standards in dealing with migration from the Middle East and Africa compared to its treatment of refugees from Ukraine.

“It’s appalling how the struggles of these people are always belittled – they are also escaping conflicts, extremism, poverty and increasing environmental risks,” he said.

Updated: July 05, 2023, 2:05 AM