On her visit to Tunis last week, where she met with President Kais Saied alongside Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, declared that "since 2011, the European Union has been supporting Tunisia's journey of democracy. It is a long, sometimes difficult road. But these difficulties can be overcome." One could be forgiven for thinking that von der Leyen had not been properly briefed on Saied's dismantling of democracy since his coup in July 2021, when he dismissed the prime minister, unilaterally dissolved parliament and seized judicial powers for himself.
Von der Leyen's words, nevertheless, are only the latest iteration in the EU's flawed policy toward Tunisia in recent years.
After Saied's power grab, some experts called for the EU to unify its message and maintain diplomatic pressure on Saied to preserve Tunisia's democracy. Tarek Megerisi, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, warned at that time that Europeans could not "afford to sit and watch from the side-lines." But this was exactly what the EU proceeded to do, adopting a line that was not substantially different from the muted criticism of the Biden administration—all while Saied proceeded to shut down Tunisia's independent judicial council, rewrite the post-revolution constitution and inaugurate a rubber-stamp parliament. His latest move came this past April with the detention of Tunisia's most prominent opposition leader, Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda party, which dominated parliament for years as a nascent democracy took form after the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Saied's moves have only been met with meek statements of "concern" from the EU. For instance, in his response to the Saied's coup, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called for "institutional stability to be restored as quickly as possible." But if Saied was testing the waters every time he chipped away at Tunisia's democracy, he must have felt emboldened by the lack of tangible consequences coming from Europe.
EU strategy toward Tunisia appears to be a slightly better-disguised copy of Italy's approach, myopically focused on keeping migrants from Europe's shores. It essentially means that democracy in Tunisia can wait.
- Marc Martorell Junyent
The democratic backsliding under his increasingly autocratic rule has been accompanied by a deepening of the country's economic crisis that Saied had partly used to justify seizing power two years ago. Facing economic ruin in Tunisia, more Tunisians have attempted the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe. The rise in the number of migrant departures from Tunisia helps explain why, just in 2022, more than 2,406 people died at sea in the Mediterranean, up from 2,062 the previous year. The situation took a turn for the worse in February when Saied in an outburst accused sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia of being part of a "criminal plan… to change the demographic structure" of the country. His racist remarks had incendiary consequences; many sub-Saharan African migrants lost their jobs in Tunisia or were attacked by mobs. Unsurprisingly enough, in the first months of 2023, record-level numbers of refugees and migrants departed from Tunisia to European shores, especially to Italy.
The Italian government under far-right Prime Minister Meloni has been even more blunt than EU representatives in expressing its priorities regarding Tunisia, which are economic stability and stopping the flow of migrants. Italy has significant business interests in Tunisia and is the country's second-largest source of foreign direct investment after France. In March, Italy pledged €110 million (approximately $120 million) in investments in Tunisia's economy.
Preventing migrant arrivals is also a central issue in Italy's troubled internal politics. Meloni's government, a right-wing coalition led by her far-right Brothers of Italy party, promised to double down on the already harsh migration policies of previous Italian governments. In a sign of Tunisia's importance for Meloni's agenda, she also met directly with Saied earlier this month in Tunis and promised to help him in his fraught negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to secure a bailout. Five days later, Meloni returned to Tunis accompanied by von der Leyen and Rutte.
After their joint visit, von der Leyen announced that the EU and Tunisia had agreed to cooperate on economic development, trade, energy and migration. Von der Leyen explained that the EU is ready to mobilize macro-financial assistance for Tunisia to the tune of €900 million as soon as Tunis concludes an agreement with the IMF to restructure its economy. So far, Saied continues to reject a deal with the IMF, which he sees as "foreign interference" in Tunisia's affairs. In addition to the EU's pledge of nearly $1 billion in aid pending the IMF agreement, the EU also offered an immediate financial support package of about $120 million in what it calls "migration funding," tripling the previous amount. As of now, details are unclear on what this funding will exactly entail.
Before Saied's carefully orchestrated constitutional referendum last summer that fully paved the way for one-man rule, Borrell stated that "the strength of the EU-Tunisia partnership rests on shared values and a commitment to democratic principles." Von der Leyen's recent visit to Tunisia suggests otherwise. EU strategy appears to be a slightly better-disguised copy of Italy's approach, myopically focused on keeping migrants from Europe's shores. It essentially means that democracy in Tunisia can wait, as the real concerns are "economic stability," which really means preventing an exodus of migrants. As an anonymous European diplomat rightly pointed out for the French newspaper Le Monde, "Meloni's line on Tunisia has won."
Of course, this approach still hinges on Saied's cooperation. The day before he met the three European leaders in Tunis, Saied remarked that Tunisia would not become "Europe's border guard." But the agreement that EU countries reached last week to change EU migration and asylum laws—reforms that have been described as "radical"—would allow the bloc's member countries to determine which other countries are safe for return and to send migrants back not only to their countries of origin but also to transit countries. This would open the door for Italy to return to Tunisia migrants from elsewhere, for example countries in West Africa. Moreover, after her first and second meetings with Saied this month, Meloni explained that they had discussed his eventual participation in an "international conference on migration and development" to be hosted in Rome on an undetermined date.
Europe, it seems, is fine with Saied's autocracy in Tunisia if, indeed, he becomes the EU's border guard.
- Marc Martorell Junyent
There are still several uncertainties. On the European side, much will depend on how the new EU agreement on migration and asylum laws is implemented in practice, as well as on the details of the EU's increased "migration funding" for Tunisia. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether Saied's refusal to become "Europe's border guard" is genuine or just a bargaining strategy to get more concessions—and more aid and investment—from the EU to turn around Tunisia's sinking economy. The second option is more likely if, as it seems, the EU is ready to provide economic support to Tunisia and facilitate its negotiations with the IMF in exchange for managing the flow of migrants out of Tunisia to Europe.
In that case, Tunisia would essentially be following the example of neighboring Libya. The EU has long outsourced to the Libyan Coast Guard the task of controlling part of its southern borders in the Mediterranean. The refugees and migrants intercepted at sea by the Libyan authorities often end up in detention centers back in Libya where they face well-documented abuses, including rape and torture. Europe's cooperation with Libya has made clear that the EU will do anything to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, regardless of the suffering of migrants and its own complicity in those abuses.
After remaining so passive while Saied dismantled Tunisia's democracy, the EU is now offering Saied a chance to secure much-needed economic assistance and an image of international respectability if he agrees to keep refugees and migrants in Tunisia. Europe, it seems, is fine with Saied's autocracy in Tunisia if, indeed, he becomes the EU's border guard. So much for the EU supporting "Tunisia's journey of democracy." The future of Tunisia should be for all Tunisians to decide. But the EU is propping up the man preventing Tunisians from taking that future into their own hands.