Has Europe found a new partner for its asylum policy?
Just a few days after the E.U. agreed to significantly tighten asylum laws, E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni travelled to Tunis. During the brief official visit, the trio offered closer future cooperation with Tunisian President Kais Saied over migration and the economy.
Saied, only recently criticised by the E.U. parliament for his autocratic style of governance, can look forward to a generous increase in payments from Brussels. 100 million Euros is to be released to Tunis for border management, search and rescue, anti-smuggling measures and the repatriation of migrants.
150 million Euros in budget support will be provided as soon as a memorandum between Tunisia and the E.U. is passed – planned for the end of June 2023. Up to 900 million euros macro-financial assistance is to be transferred this year. Speaking after the meeting at the presidential palace, Von der Leyen went on to say that respect for human rights would be key in the coordinated approach to the issue of migration.
For months now, Tunisia has been a major hub for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy by boat. According to data from the interior ministry in Rome, this year alone 53,800 migrants coming from Tunisia have been registered on Lampedusa and Sicily, more than twice as many as in the entire previous year.
As well as migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, more and more Tunisians are leaving their homeland. Because very few Tunisians are granted asylum in the E.U., in future almost all new arrivals are likely to be immediately detained in Italy and sent back to their home countries after a fast-track procedure.
President Saied sparks a surge of migrant boat journeys
Up until Sunday, this nation of 12 million was close to bankruptcy owing to the repayment of several loans due this year, as well as the economic crisis, which has persisted since the coronavirus pandemic. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a 1.9 billion-dollar bailout package have been stalled for months, with President Saied describing the terms of the loan as ‘diktats’. Up to that point, he had promised the Tunisian people he would overcome the crisis alone.
The day before the visit by the three E.U. representatives to Tunis, Saied ruled out the possibility that his nation might serve as Europe’s border police: "We cannot be a guard for their countries," he said in Sfax. But without close cooperation with Tunisia, Italy will not be able to realise its pledges to cut immigration, a key component of Prime Minister Meloni’s hard right platform.
In fact, it was Kais Saied himself who, with an inflammatory speech in February 2023, drove many migrants out of Tunisia where they were working without clear residence status because of a lack of asylum laws – a population thought to have originally numbered more than 20,000. The former law professor claimed they were part of a conspiracy against the Arab and Islamic culture of the Maghreb.
His comments triggered racist attacks on migrants. As a result, many sub-Saharan Africans are waiting on the coast between the cities of Mahdia and Sfax for an opportunity to reach Europe. Accidents occur daily; people are dying because traffickers pack up to 40 people into unsuitable boats. Several West African governments have reacted with dismay to the treatment of their citizens in Tunisia. The Tunisian government denies that any attacks have taken place and has once again begun courting West African students, who don't need a visa to enter Tunisia.
A top-up loan from Italy would come in very handy
Overall, the political situation is extremely tense. Saied has been ruling by decree ever since his power grab in July 2021; more than 20 politicians and journalists are in detention on corruption charges.
Determined to realise her election pledge to drastically reduce the number of migrants landing in Italy, Giorgia Meloni has nevertheless selected Saied and Libya’s prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah as partners in her planned alliance against people traffickers and migrants. During her lightning visits to Tunis and Tripoli last week, the three agreed to hold a prompt conference with nations located along the migration route to Europe.
If Tunisia and the IMF reach agreement, Italy has promised to bump up the bailout package by another 700 million Euros. Rarely has the Tunisian president, who is usually aloof and reserved, been seen smiling so warmly as during his appearance in front of TV cameras with right-wing nationalist Meloni at the presidential palace in Tunis-Carthage.
Saied rejects the IMF loan because it is tied to subsidy cuts on consumer goods which he believes will chiefly affect workers in Tunisia’s informal sector. In the south of the country, almost half the economic output is achieved without employment contracts or tax registration. State welfare payments to cushion the impact of rising fuel and food prices would bypass informal workers.
Tunisia shouldn't move any closer to China and Russia
The low turnout in parliamentary elections called by Saied and the referendum on the constitution drafted by the president himself are evidence that although he was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2019, Saied is not immune to potential social unrest. The top-up loan from Italy comes in response to criticism of the IMF programme also shared by many Tunisians. E.U. aid is not tied to any programme of reforms, with Brussels evidently moving to prevent Saied turning to Beijing, Riyadh or Moscow.
The Tunisian Nationalist Party, recognised by the state and loyal to the president, regularly holds podium discussions with the Chinese and Russian ambassadors and promotes Tunisia's cooperation with the BRICS alliance of nations. Having campaigned vociferously against migrants, Tunisian nationalists thus began homing in on a new enemy: Tunisian civil society sustained by Western money is intent on imposing a Western lifestyle on the nation and undermining the president's attempts to counter corruption within the political elite, declared a representative for the movement on social media.
This means that international organisations – including German foundations – active here since the start of the Arab Spring could now be targeted by the authorities. The Tunisian civil society they support is essentially the final effective gatekeeper preventing Saied from attaining absolute control. One day before they travelled to Tunis, the European delegation were handed another valuable bargaining chip. On Saturday, the rating agency Fitch took Tunisia's credit rating down another notch to CCC-.
Who knows whether the visitors from Europe also demanded specific steps from Saied in return for their lavish cash gifts, such as an end to the arrest of opposition politicians and migrants. Any journalists who might have posed such questions were not barred from attending the closing statement.
© Suddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Nina Coon