The European Union and Tunisia finalized a “strategic partnership” on Sunday to combat people-smugglers and strengthen borders amid an increase in the number of makeshift boats leaving the southern African country.
The difficult negotiations finally bore fruit: on Sunday 16 July in Tunis, the European Union and Tunisia entered into a “strategic partnership” centered on the fight against irregular immigration, but also aimed at supporting the North African country in the face of serious economic difficulties.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed a deal that will “invest in shared prosperity”, citing “five pillars”, including the all-important issue of migration.
Tunisia is the main point of departure, along with Libya, for thousands of migrants crossing the central Mediterranean towards Europe.
Italian heads of government Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Mark Rutte accompanied the European leader after a first visit a month ago by the trio, where they had proposed this partnership.
The five pillars are “macroeconomic stability, trade and investment, green energy transition, bringing people together, migration and mobility,” the Commission said in a statement.
The memorandum of understanding marks “an important new step in dealing with the migration crisis in an integrated way”, welcomed Giorgia Meloni, who invited Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed to attend a summit on migration next Sunday (23 July) in Rome.
In particular, the extension of the Erasmus exchange program to Tunisia and a support of 65 million euros for 80 schools is planned.
On the energy side, European leaders recalled that Tunisia is concerned about undersea fiber optic cable and electrical cable projects to connect the two shores of the Mediterranean.
In this regard, the EU wants to support the development of renewable energy in the Maghreb country, which has “enormous potential”, stressed Ursula von der Leyen.
According to Giorgia Meloni, the partnership between Tunisia and the European Union (EU) “can be considered a model for the establishment of new relations with North Africa”.
On immigration, Mark Rutte believed that the agreement will “better control irregular immigration”.
President Saïed raised this issue with his colleagues and called for “a collective agreement on inhumane immigration and on (forced) displacement operations by criminal networks”.
Increasingly openly xenophobic discourse
“The Tunisians gave these immigrants everything that could be offered with unlimited generosity”, pleaded Kaïs Saïed, heavily criticized for the way hundreds of migrants were arrested in Tunisia and then “deported”, according to NGOs, to inhospitable areas of borders with Algeria and Libya.
Telephone testimonies to AFP and videos sent to NGOs in Tunisia showed women and children abandoned in the middle of the desert without water, food or shelter.
Libyan border guards told AFP on Sunday that they had rescued at least 70 migrants who were wandering in unbearable temperatures and without help in a border area between the two countries.
An increasingly openly xenophobic discourse has spread in Tunisia since its president, who took full power in July 2021, denounced illegal immigration in February, citing “hordes of sub-Saharan migrants” who he said had come to change it demographic composition of the country.
Specifically, the agreement between Brussels and Tunis provides support of 105 million euros to combat irregular immigration.
The EU has also pledged direct budget support of 150 million euros by 2023, while Tunisia, strangled by a debt of 80% of its GDP, is short of cash, leading to regular shortages of basic necessities products bought directly by the state.
During its first visit, the European troika had mentioned “macro-financial assistance of 900 million euros” in the form of a loan, which would have been granted to Tunisia over the next few years.
Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday that Brussels remains “ready to provide this assistance as soon as the conditions are met”.
But this “aid” is conditional on an agreement between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new $2 billion loan, a matter that has been deadlocked for months.
President Saïed rejects two essential conditions for an agreement with the IMF: the abolition of subsidies for basic products and the restructuring of crisis-hit state enterprises.
We must “find new means of cooperation outside the international monetary framework”, he said on Sunday.