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Why the Tunisia-EU deal is going nowhere

The Tunisia case is a reminder that a deal on paper without a more genuine, broader agreement will fall apart quickly
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Tunisian President Kais Saied and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pose in Tunis on 16 July 2023 (Tunisian Presidency/AFP)

The optics looked impressive: A group of senior European politicians, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, shook hands with Tunisian President Kais Saied in July as they sealed a new agreement

The deal did not just concern the EU’s relationship with Tunisia, but rather was a potential blueprint for similar agreements with other states, where the EU hoped to combine collaboration on migration with economic engagement. The optics, however, did not last long. 

This week, the Tunisian government announced it was declining an instalment of funds from the EU, including direct budget support and support for migration management, after judging it to be an insufficient implementation of both the text and spirit of the July agreement. 

While there is still confusion on the EU side as to what exactly Tunisia’s government is objecting to, this comes at the end of an already tumultuous few weeks for EU-Tunisia relations. 

In September, after a heated debate on Tunisia in the European Parliament, Tunisia refused entry to a delegation of European parliamentarians. Last week, a visit by a European Commission delegation was postponed

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While it is unclear where this relationship goes next, the tragedy of errors and misunderstandings of recent months has already provided an important lesson for EU policy. Rather than being a blueprint for other agreements, the Tunisia case is a reminder that a deal on paper without a more genuine, broader agreement will fall apart quickly.

Fundamentally, the issues with the EU-Tunisia deal are caused by a continuing lack of agreement and common purpose on multiple levels. The first level is the EU itself. 

No consensus 

The Tunisia deal was a product of the European Commission, driven by the perspectives among countries within the union. Meloni, the right-wing prime minister of Italy, was particularly instrumental, pushing for both the deal and its function as a blueprint for similar arrangements. But this has not been a consensus position within the EU. 

The weeks following the agreement saw open frustration - by the European Parliament, and by diplomats from a large range of countries, including Germany - both with the deal itself and its function as a model to expand upon. Some of this frustration was procedural; the commission’s pressing ahead on the agreement without sufficient consultation might have run afoul of the EU’s own rules. 

Other opposition is more normative, relating to the grave human rights violations against migrants in Tunisia in recent months, the country’s rapid deterioration into authoritarian rule, and its rising number of political prisoners. These issues have all raised doubts by many European policymakers about the feasibility of a deeper partnership on migration. 

All the confusion around the EU-Tunisia deal thus has important lessons for the EU in relation both to Tunisia, and its foreign policy more widely

The EU ombudsman recently asked the European Commission to explain how the deal can ensure that human rights are respected, giving a December deadline for a reply. Without a shared internal perspective on this, the EU is not necessarily a reliable party to this deal.

The second lack of agreement undermining the EU-Tunisia deal is between the EU and the Tunisian government. While the July visit produced photo opportunities and a text that pointed to a range of potential areas for collaboration, it did not create the impression of a genuinely shared vision on economic cooperation and migration governance between Tunisian and European policymakers. That is because there is none. 

Many interests here are still diverging - around the actual practice of migration governance in Tunisia, for example, where Saied’s dabbling in various racist narratives should have been a red flag for a long time, but also about economic cooperation and Tunisia’s economic future. 

One example is that the vast majority of the potential funds mentioned by the EU have been described as conditional on Tunisia reaching a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, a process that has been stalled for a while, and revolves around questions of Tunisian state expenditures and subsidies that are extremely controversial within Tunisia. 

Lack of trust

Furthermore, the lack of trust between both sides is increasingly visible. This is also due to both sides speaking primarily to their internal audiences. What Meloni or other European politicians seek to project to their electorates is starkly divergent from what Saied seeks to project.

While both the policies and priorities of the Tunisian president have often been erratic, his insistence on Tunisian sovereignty and his reliance on a discourse of national self-determination have been consistent, and must be taken very seriously. 

Finally, and relatedly, the third lack of agreement that undermines the relationship between the EU and Tunisia is within Tunisia. While Saied has dismantled the country’s democratic institutions to amass huge amounts of power in the presidency, his political rhetoric has often been somewhat oppositional. 

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He has highlighted clearly what he does not want: foreign diktats, subsidy cuts, playing migration manager for the EU. But he has been less clear on his vision for Tunisia’s economic development with respect to migration, and how international actors fit into it. 

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 needed to implement it. In the absence of that, confusion and public spats with the EU provide fitting cover, but make Saied a highly unreliable and dysfunctional partner. 

There is a risk that Saied is not only out of step with other actors in Tunisia’s state structures, but also with the Tunisian people. Any deeper engagement between the EU and Tunisia would undoubtedly have substantial long-term implications for the country’s population. 

The dismantling of the country’s democratic structures means that the Tunisian people have no meaningful way to engage in this discussion, ask questions, or disagree with their president and each other. Frustratingly, the EU so far seems to have been too happy to appease this. 

All the confusion around the EU-Tunisia deal thus has important lessons for the EU in relation both to Tunisia, and its foreign policy more widely. Rather than a blueprint, this deal serves as a reminder that written agreements do not provide solutions unless there is more serious alignment and a common vision among the actors involved - including the EU and its partners. 

This will be impossible without addressing the humanitarian questions more seriously, alongside a full recognition of the political context in places such as Tunisia. Otherwise, further confusion is likely to follow - confusion that, as both the ongoing tragedies in the Mediterranean and the deteriorating living standards in an increasingly authoritarian Tunisia demonstrate, has real and dire humanitarian consequences.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Max Gallien is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and at the International Centre for Tax and Development. His research focuses on the politics of informal and illegal economies and the political economy of North Africa. He holds a PhD in International Development from the London School of Economics and an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford.
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