The EU needs to stand up for human rights in Tunisia

Greens/EFA MEPs Jordi Sole and François Alfonsi travelled to Tunisia from 5-8 September, to meet representatives of Tunisian civil society and the People’s Assembly to discuss the current situation on the ground and relations between the EU and Tunisia.

Tunisia –  Much has changed since the revolution

“2011 we lived in a dream, today we cannot believe the nightmare we slid into”: This is how many of our conversations with human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and academics begin, as we toured the buzzing capital Tunis for three days. Much has changed since the “explosion of liberties” that followed the fall of Ben Ali in 2011 and the initiation of the Arab Spring in the idyllic town of Sidi Bouzid, just north of Tunis.

We learn about the flaws and hardships that burden the country’s transition post-2011, such as widespread corruption and constant battling between political parties and listen to diverging opinions about its achievements and failures. There seems to be a consensus that President Kais Saied´s power grab from 25 July 25, 2021, has brought matters from bad to worse: a significant backslide in terms of democratic checks and balances and civil rights.

Authoritarian reversal at the speed of light

In the course of the last two years President Saied dismantled democratic institutions in the country, decided to dissolve the Parliament unconstitutional, dismissed over 50 judges and adopted a new constitution penned by himself which grants huge powers to the presidency and very few to the new parliament, voted by only 11% of the electorate. Now an NGO bill to curb civil society is looming. Early this year arrests of politicians, activists, journalists, and entrepreneurs began. Some of them were imprisoned without proper indictments nor judicial investigation accused of such vague crimes as “complot against the security of the state”. A state of fear is growing amongst civil society. Apathy reigns amongst the population, a large part of which struggles to survive economic hardship. Many of the achievements in the field of fundamental rights brought by the democratic transition, however imperfect it was, may be jeopardised. 

The EU must defend democracy against autocracy, also outside of Europe

The European Union is a close neighbour and long-standing partner of Tunisia. After the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, the EU stood on the side of Tunisians. The EU substantially increased funding and engagement on institution-building and civil society. Our interlocutors       remind us that the close cooperation between the EU and Tunisia civil society not only built trust but also evoked the expectation and conviction that the EU would not abandon Tunisia´s transition to democracy. Evermore bitter is the frustration of our partners and allies on the ground about the silence of the European Commission and Member States regarding the many alarms of growing authoritarianism and most recently the ratification of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between “Team Europe” and President Saied.      

Tunisia and the EU – “the Memorandum of Misunderstandings”

As has been widely reported, the Memorandum of Understanding is essentially a deal on migration, paying 105 million € for Tunisia to decrease departures from Tunisian shores towards Italy and to be able to return refugees and asylum seekers. Another 150 million € are given immediately to delay bankruptcy. Some further funds are earmarked for Erasmus+ exchange and research cooperation.

The Anti-Migration deal between the EU and Tunisia is bad – and it won’t succeed

The European Commission and Member States are betting on the wrong horse. Kais Saied is not a counterpart that can deliver. First, there are no indicators that President Saied has any plan to navigate the country out of its economic crisis.

Hence, while the EU´s recent budget support may have paid some days of subsidies for basic goods, the macro-financial assistance, tied to an IMF agreement, will remain untapped and Tunisia’s economy will remain in emergency mode. Second, opposite to the declared goal of the agreement between the EU and Tunisia, departures of refugees and asylum seekers from Tunisia to Italy have been constantly rising since President von der Leyen´s visit to Tunis.

The EU – Tunisia relationship must be based on human rights

President Saied and the Interior Ministry’s campaign against migrants in Sfax, who now are forbidden to work and exposed to arbitrary violence, led many of them to depart from Tunisia immediately.

The EU-Tunisia policy needs to be based on and guided by the respect for human rights and democracy, as stipulated in the EU-Tunisia Association Agreement. Violations of fundamental freedoms by the President and security forces need to be criticised and called by their name.

Greens/EFA demands regarding EU-Tunisia relations:

  • The respect for human rights, rule of law and the dignity of Tunisians need to be at the centre of EU-Tunisia relations. Relations need to remain based on the EU-Tunisia Association agreements and inclusive formats of engagement that allow for the participation of civil society, rather than non-transparent, transactional, bilateral deals.
  • The release of political prisoners and the revamping of the national dialogue in Tunisia are two central demands that the EU should reiterate in all interactions with the Tunisian leadership. It needs to be tied to strict conditionality related to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Further, the purpose and the allocation of funds need to finally be made much more transparent!
  • The EU must stop externalising migration management to authoritarian governments. If feasible at all, migration cooperation needs to be preceded by a human rights assessment, third-party monitoring, and possible sanctions in case of non-compliance.
  • People-to-people exchange and mobility between the EU and Tunisia cannot remain window-dressing of the migration deal.
  • Enable legal migration routes, also for labour mobility, as well as intercultural exchange. The so-called Talent Partnerships need to finally be filled with life.

The EU must let go of dirty deals with autocrats that go against human rights and European values. We need to push for a coherent and value-based EU foreign policy vis-a-vis Tunisia and the region. It is paramount that we support and protect our partners and allies on the ground and act strategically to counteract the shrinking spaces for human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers.