To guard its borders, Europe rushes to Tunisia’s bedside

While President Kais Saied’s regime is having a hard time reaching an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, Tunisia has seen several European leaders – French and Italian in particular – flying to the rescue. Helping hands which are anything but disinterested, meant to develop the country’s role as Europe’s border guard, at a time when the continent is doing all it can to externalise its frontiers.

Reception of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen by President Kaïs Saïed at Carthage Palace, 11 June 2023
Tunisian Presidency/AFP

It was a very rare event in international relations. In the space of a single week, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made two visits to Tunis. On 7 June the far-right leader spent just a few hours in the Tunisian capital. Greeted by her opposite number, Naja Bouden, she subsequently had a talk with President Saied who praised her, in French, as ‘a woman who says out loud what others only whisper.’ Four days later, the Prime Minister returned to Tunis with a European delegation.

Accompanied by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte, the agenda of Meloni’s second visit featured the two subjects which most preoccupy European rulers: Tunisia’s economic stability and, most of all, the migration issue, which has priority over that of ‘democratic values.’

A migratory pact

At the conclusion of this encounter, the Europeans offered a series of measures very favourable to Tunisia: a loan of 900 million euros provided the deal with the IMF goes through, an immediate budgetary aid of 170 million euros as well as another 195 million to improve border surveillance. Von der Leyen also mentioned projects involving broadband Internet and green energies and spoke incidentally of ‘bringing peoples together.’ Le Monde, quoting sources in Brussels, revealed that most of these announcements dealt with sums that had already been appropriated. A week later, Gérald Darmanin and Nancy Fraser, respectively French and German Ministers of Internal Affairs, also travelled to Tunis. An aid of 26 million euros was released for the equipment and training of Tunisian border guards.

Europe’s haste to reach an agreement with Tunisia is motivated by the need to present it to the European Parliament before the end of the current session. Already on 8 June, a preliminary agreement was reached between the EU’s Ministers of Interior Affairs to improve the policies of the 27 as regards asylum and migration and achieve a better allocation of migrants. Those who, because of their nationality, have fewer chances of being granted asylum, will see their applications examined in twelve weeks. Agreements will also be concluded with certain countries deemed ‘safe’ so that they may recover not only the failed asylum seekers among their nationals but also foreign migrants having transited via their territory. If Tunisia agrees to this condition, it will find itself taking charge of thousands of sub-Saharan migrants who have tried to reach Europe from its shore.

In this context, the European executive simply ignored the human rights issue. Yet in March 2023, European MPs voted, by a large majority, in favour of a resolution condemning the authoritarian turning of the Tunisian regime. Since last February, the authorities have arrested some twenty political opponents accused of ‘conspiring against the security of the State’. While their attorneys have denounced the vacuity of the prosecution’s case, the prosecutor’s office has refused to make public its own version.

The Algerian ally

Since he assumed full authority over the country’s institutions on 25 July 2021, Kais Saied has made Tunisia a ‘special case’ for the nations of the region and the world. During the first few months following the takeover, Western countries wavered between ‘concern’ and comprehension. The main forum where their worries were expressed was the G7. Several press releases called or a rapid return to the democratic process and the establishment of an inclusive dialogue. But above and beyond these proclamations of principle, there soon appeared a divergence of interests among the members of this informal coalition, opposing Europeans and North Americans. For Italy – and to a lesser degree, for France – the migratory question lay at the heart of the public debate, while the USA and Canada continued to focus on issues of human rights and freedom. On the other hand, there was still a consensus on both sides of the Atlantic favouring a positive conclusion to the negotiations between Tunis and the IMF.

The end of Western unanimity on the issues of rights and freedom was going to set Italy apart on the Tunisian dossier. Since 2022, Rome has become Tunis’s main commercial partner, ahead of France. This change coincided with another turnaround: Tunisia is now the Mediterranean country whence the largest number of clandestine crossings for Europe takes place. Having observed that Kais Saied’s Tunisia was still very cooperative regarding the readmission of illegal Tunisian immigrants deported from Italy, Rome realised that it was in its interest to support a regime that was both strong and accommodating. Here was an occasion to profit by its rapprochement with the Algeria of Abdelmadjid Tebboune who has never made any bones about his sympathies for Kais Saied. Thus, in May 2022, the Algerian President declared that Algiers and Rome were determined to save Tunisia’ from the mess it was in’. There were many declarations of this sort and yet no public reactions were forthcoming from Tunisian authorities, normally quick to protest against any outside interference. This was not the first time that Italy and Algeria – linked by a gas pipeline across Tunisian territory – had joined forces on behalf of an authoritarian regime in that country. Already, in 1987, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali consulted with Rome and Algiers before deposing Habib Bourguiba.

Giorgia Mloni’s rise to power in Italy would give their relationship a shot in the arm. The far-right politician had been elected on the promise of a drastic reduction of illegal migration and sent many signals of support for the ruling regime. On 2 February 2023, the Tunisian presidency released a communiqué warning against the ‘threat’ constituted by the ‘hordes of sub-Saharan migrants’ to ‘the demographic composition of Tunisia’. While this Tunisian version of the ‘Great Replacement Theory’ gave rise to much indignation – from the African Union (AU) – Italy was the one country to publicly support the Tunisian authorities. Since then the Italian Premier and her ministers have been making every diplomatic effort to persuade Tunisia to sign an agreement with the IMF, especially since the EU has officially stressed the immanent risk of the country’s financial collapse.

Resisting the ‘dictates of the IMF

Tunisia has been mired in an economic crisis at least since 2008. The social expenditures resulting from the revolution, the terrorist attacks, the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have only made the country’s situation worse.

The negotiations with the Washington-based institution are an action-packed saga. At the end of July 2021, even before a new cabinet was appointed, Saied ordered his new Finance Minister, Sihem Namsia, to pursue the talks aimed at floating a loan from the IMF meant to inaugurate a series of bilateral financial aids. As the talks proceeded, however, divergences began to appear between the members of the new executive. While Najla Bouden’s cabinet seemed willing to accede to the financial institution’s recommendations (restructuring and privatisation of a number of state-owned companies, elimination of hydrocarbon subsidies, reduction of food subsidies), Saied opposed what he described as the ‘dictates of the IMF’, denouncing an austerity policy likely to endanger civil peace. Yet this did not prevent him from enacting the 2023 financial law which includes the Bretton Woods institution’s main recommendations.

In October 2022, a ‘technical’ agreement was reached between the IMF’s experts and those of the Tunisian government and the final signature was to have taken place in December. But ths last staged has been postponed indefinitely, with no explanation given.

This dissension among the members of an executive supposedly more unified than under the regime of the 2014 Constitution, are due to Kais Saied’s personal approach to economics. After Ben Ali was overthrown, the transitional authorities commissioned a report on the detailed workings of the fallen regime’s corrupt practices. The final document, which lays greater emphasis on lost revenue (collateral free loans, unwarranted authorisations…) than on actual misappropriations, provides no figures. But in 2012, Slim Ben Hmidane, Minister of State Properties, put forward the figure of 13 billion dollars, confusing the sums which the State expected to confiscate from the Ben Ali clan with those deposited abroad. Pouncing on this erroneous figure, Kais Saied believed that was the sum to be given back and invested in the regions which the previous regime had marginalised. On 22 March, the President enacted a law putting this principle into practice and appointed a commission instructed to invite ‘anyone […] having performed actions liable to result in economic and financial offences’ to invest in afflicted areas the equivalent of any sums unlawfully acquired in exchange for the dismissal of charges against them.

This arrangement went into effect after the conclusion of the technical agreement with the IMF. While the government was hoping to finalise the deal with Washington, Saied brought pressure to bear on the amnesty commission in order that Tunisia should ‘get by on its own’. When he failed to have his way, the President preferred to dismiss the commission’s chairman and denounce the obstacles within the administration. Since then, he has repeatedly called for less stringent conditions in the deal with the FMI, with the support of the Italian government. On 12 June 2023, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, following a meeting with his Italian counterpart, Antonio Tajani, declared he would be willing to see Tunis offer the IMF a revised program of reforms.

Once again, the Europeans choose to support a dictatorship in the name of stability. In Ben Ali’s day, Islamism and the fight against terrorism were the main justifications, while today it is the struggle against immigration, the be-all and end-all of any political and vote-getting rhetoric in an increasingly right-wing Europe, which serves as a compass. But all these actors are forgetting how unpredictable the Tunisian president can be, concerned as he is to avoid any grass-roots movement likely to weaken his hold on the country. The day before the visit of the European delegation, Saïd went to Sfax, the country’s second-largest city, and the hub of illegal migration. He went to reach out to the sub-Saharan populations, demanding that they be treated in a dignified manner and then declared that Tunisia ‘refused to be anybody’s border guard.’ A statement he repeated during Gérald Darmanin’s visit with his German counterpart and then again at the summit for a new financial pact in Paris on 22–23 June 2023.