UBI MAIOR MINOR CESSAT: Is it Time For a New EU Strategy in Tunisia And The Global South?

24 May 2023 /

8 min

Thirteen years have passed since Mohamed Bouazizi made his sacrifice, sparking the Tunisian Revolution in 2011. This momentous event served as a catalyst, inspiring popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, notably in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, marking a turning point for the entire region. Since 2011, Tunisia has always been viewed by Western democracies as an example for driving regional change, since its citizens chanted “shughl, hurriyya, karama wataniyya” (work, freedom, national dignity) demanding economic and social justice reforms along with democratic freedoms. Yet, the country’s parameters today indicate that the situation has hardly improved notwithstanding European involvement. 

Tunisia: from a  “success story” to a deteriorating situation

Contrary to everyone’s expectations, the country’s economic performance has worsened since  2011, resulting in a lost decade of growth. This decline was further exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In 2023, Tunisia’s outstanding public debt accounts for 80% of the country’s GDP, a significant increase from 47% in 2011. In addition, its budget deficit currently stands at  10% of the GDP and inflation rate is also at 10%. While youth unemployment (15-24 years old) declined in relation to  2011, the decrease was modest in nature, lowering from 42% to 31.7%. Furthermore, in the realm of democratic reforms, Tunisia has not managed to deliver an effective democratic environment to boost socio economic reforms, prompting citizens’ distrust towards institutions and popular frustration. The continuous  political crisis due to many changes of governments highlights the failure of political coalitions and has led to a political stalemate that has halted structural economic reforms and the fight against corruption and terrorism. Against this background, according to Arab Barometer, many Tunisians have welcomed the suspension of Parliament on July 25, 2021 by President Kaïs Saied, taking it as a break to the political deadlock rather than a coup. As a matter of fact, 72% of Tunisians still believe that democracy, although requiring systemic reforms, remains the best form of governance and nearly 64% say that democracy is always preferable to any other kind of governance. Nevertheless, the 2022 constitutional referendum, which resulted in a form of hyper-presidentialism, has stripped the parliament of any presidential oversight and diminished its political significance. At the same time, Saied’s government and the military are making more and more of a united front. Additionally, the recent crackdown on journalists and Sub-Saharan migrants by Saied’s government has prompted Freedom House to reclassify Tunisia from “free” to “partly free” in 2023. Similarly, Reports Without Borders (RSF) has downgraded the country’s media freedom ranking from 94 in 2022 to 120 out of 180 in 2023.

EU’s international trade policy between soft power and neocolonial accusations

Given Tunisia’s pioneering role in the Arab uprisings and its pro-democracy stance, the country has attained greater importance for the EU in the Southern Neighborhood policy by becoming a “privileged partner” in 2012 in the path towards a full democratic transition. Therefore, the EU has increased its bilateral aid to Tunisia to support reforms (€1.3 bn in the period 2011-2015). However, according to the Court of Auditors, aid was not sufficiently focused, funds were spread across too many sectors and Tunisian authorities did not manage to deliver a comprehensive national development plan. In 2015, the EU stepped up its aid to Tunisia by launching the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), which was an integral part of the European new strategy towards the Mediterranean countries. One of the principles of the DCFTA was the total alignment with EU’s norms (“EU acquis”) in exchange for economic integration, albeit  without the prospect of becoming full members of the European Union. Currently on hold after resistance from social movements and the labor unions (UGTT), this agreement would have entailed Tunisian reconciliation with EU norms and standards over extensive legislation establishing a conditionality for “incentives”, such as the potential access to the EU’s domestic market and visa processes. 

One of the main critiques to this agreement came from scholars and policy-makers concerning the EU’s normative influence and the discrepancy between EU’s objectives and Southern development goals. The normative power of the EU comes to be used as “soft power” to create a “ring of friends” in the EU’s neighboring regions, with the same aspiration towards openness and prosperity. However, these norms are not “universal” and the EU’s attempts to spread them overlook Southern countries’ development goals. Regarding Tunisia, the swift adoption of European standards can hinder the productive capabilities of Tunisian businesses and undermine local companies in their competition against European counterparts. It is not a coincidence that the DCFTA has attracted criticism and protests also from civil society, which has compared it to a neo-colonial agreement, highlighting that norm harmonization would not lead to food security for Tunisians. Instead, it would also exclude the country from having a say in EU norms and regulations negotiations, since “concrete incentives”, such as accession to the EU or even visa facilitation, are off the table. Furthermore, trade negotiations between the EU and Tunisia have always been asymmetrical in favor of the EU and consequently put the Mediterranean country in the condition of being a “satellite country” for the European Union, undermining its stance in negotiations. Data show that while the EU remains Tunisia’s first trading partner (representing 57.9% of its trade in 2020), their partnership is still highly uneven: in 2020, Tunisia’s exports to the EU accounted for 70.9%, but only a mere 0.5% of EU’s export went to Tunisia. 

Shifting foreign policy: the security-migration nexus

A change of paradigm looks very difficult to achieve, as the EU’s foreign policy has gradually framed relations with Tunisia in terms of security and migration management. Following the terrorist attacks in Sousse and at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in 2015 as well as the increasing migration flows to Europe due to increased economic instability, the situation has acquired the status of “high concern” for the EU. That’s why the EU has envisaged an additional €110 million for the reduction of irregular migration from Tunisia, by strengthening Tunisian border control management through radar and vessel equipment and its cooperation with Frontex. This strategy, however, will not likely have the expected results as Tunisian migration to Europe has only increased after 2011 due to the deteriorating economic situation. Furthermore, Tunisia’s government commitment to halt migration flows to Europe does not rely on solid foundations, due to the centrality of emigrants’ remittances for Tunisia’s economy: in 2021 they accounted for an all-time high 6.6% of the GDP. According to Simona Talani, Professor of International Political Economy at King’s College, the marginalization of North African countries from the global political economy and its consequent chronic lack of investments also play a role in enhancing extra-regional migration flows. Even if Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Africa have reached the €83 billion record in 2022, regional trends show that in North Africa they have declined by 5% with intra-regional disparities: Egypt’s FDI inflows amounted to $5122 million while Tunisia’s accounted for only $660 million.

Instead of being more comprehensive in substance, the EU’s external migration policy has three interconnected major effects: it consolidates the perimeters of “Fortress Europe” by keeping irregular migration outside its borders; it keeps on delegating border control to third countries governed by ambiguous or openly autocratic governments; it leads to legitimized human rights violations. First, to sustain the establishment of the free common market in the 1980s and following major migration waves from Eastern Europe before and the Mediterranean later, the EU has entrenched itself by creating a foreign policy framework to control and possibly shut down migration flows to Europe and by denying any legal channel for entry. Secondly, it implements this approach by entrusting authority to third countries (Turkey in 2016, Libya in 2017 and now Tunisia), regardless of their reliability as partners or the undemocratic nature of their governments. It also constructs detention camps (in Lampedusa and Lipa), walls (at the Polish-Belarus border) or even pursues illegal pushbacks with the assistance of the European agency Frontex. Third, the inadequate governance of migration in Europe not only disrupts established cross-border migration routes between North Africa and the Sahel region, but it also plays a role in facilitating the deportation of migrants into the desert or neighboring Niger, along with perpetuating racial discrimination. In fact, the government’s xenophobia against migrants in Tunisia this year was not the first episode of its kind, as also in Libya, Sub-Saharan African immigrants were forcibly removed, deported, robbed and beaten without any institutional protection in September 2000 as a demonstration of full border control. 

A fight for democracy and equality 

If at the beginning of the last decade, Tunisians’ expectations for a stronger EU-Tunisia partnership were high, after 2015 the EU faced accusations of neocolonialism and democracy exportation that have also enhanced Saied’s legitimacy. In order to still play a pivotal role in the Southern Mediterranean, also in light of the Global South’s shifting orientations towards Russia and China, the European Union should stop injecting money and start pursuing a more democratic and equal partnership with Tunisia by preserving its economic sovereignty and empowering its youth and people to decide for their political and economic future. Furthermore, it should not legitimize Saied’s autocratic government in order to achieve short-medium term objectives in foreign policy. It should instead prioritize a broader regional dialogue to tackle shared challenges, also by setting up new multilateral fora. High-level meetings along with the involvement of civil society could also help the EU frame democracy as a viable option to authoritarianism, hence contributing to constituting a democratic internal opposition to Saied and the military, creating in the process the basis for smoothly-running civil-military relationship. Last but not least, EU’s inaction towards migration governance and subsequent delegation not only leaves Europe vulnerable to coercion by autocrats under the “migration threat” but also wastes taxpayers’ money and fails to seize the opportunity to transform this phenomenon into a positive outcome for European society. Only by conceiving coordinated international trade and migration management policies, the EU’s “country-system” strategy towards Tunisia could pave the way for a broader and more equal partnership with the whole Global South and thus make a difference against China and Russia’s influences. 

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