The EU has offered Tunisia more than €1bn in a bid to help the North African nation overcome a deepening economic crisis that has prompted thousands of migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.
The financial assistance package was announced on Sunday in Tunis after Ursula von der Leyen, accompanied by the prime ministers of Italy and the Netherlands, Giorgia Meloni and Mark Rutte, met with Tunisian president Kais Saied. The proposal still requires the endorsement of other EU governments and will be linked to Tunisian authorities passing IMF-mandated reforms.
Von der Leyen said the bloc is prepared to mobilise €150mn in grants “right now” to boost Tunisia’s flagging economy, which has suffered from surging commodity prices linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Further assistance in the form of loans, totalling €900mn, could be mobilised over the longer-term, she said.
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In addition, Europe will also provide €105mn in grants this year to support Tunisia’s border management network, in a bid to “break the cynical business model of smugglers and traffickers”, von der Leyen said. The package is nearly triple what the bloc has so far provided in migration funding for the North African nation.
The offer of quick financial support is a boost for Tunisia’s embattled president, but longer-term support is contingent on him accepting reforms linked to a $1.9bn IMF package, a move Saied has been attempting to defer until after presidential elections next year.
Saied has refused to endorse the IMF loan agreement agreed in October, saying he rejected foreign “diktats” that would further impoverish Tunisians. The Tunisian leader is wary of measures such as reducing energy subsidies and speeding up the privatisation of state-owned enterprises as they could damage his popularity.
Meloni, who laid the groundwork for the announcement after meeting with Saied on Tuesday, has been pushing Washington and Brussels for months to unblock financial aid for Tunisia. The Italian leader is concerned that if the north African country’s economy imploded, it would trigger an even bigger wave of people trying to cross the Mediterranean.
So far this year, more than 53,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by boat, more than double compared with the same period last year — with a sharp increase in boats setting out from Tunisia one factor behind the surge.
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The agreement was “an important step towards creating a true partnership to address the migration crisis,” Meloni said on Sunday.
In February, Saied stoked up racist violence against people from sub-Saharan African countries by saying they were part of a plot to change Tunisia’s demographic profile.
His rhetoric has softened in an apparent bid to improve the image of the deal with the EU. Visiting a camp on Saturday, he criticised the treatment of migrants “as mere numbers”. However, he added, “it is unacceptable for us to play the policeman for other countries”.
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The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights think-tank criticised the EU’s visit on Sunday as “an attempt to exploit [Tunisia’s] political, economic and social fragility”.
The financial aid proposal comes days after European governments agreed on a long-awaited migration package that will speed up asylum proceedings and make it easier for member states to send back people who are denied asylum.
The package also includes proposals to support education, energy and trade relations with the country, including by investing in Tunisia’s renewable energy network and allowing Tunisian students to take part in student exchange programme Erasmus+.
The presence of the Dutch prime minister, usually a voice for fiscally conservative leaders in the 27-strong bloc, indicated that approval of the package would not be as difficult to achieve as other foreign funding requests. The Netherlands, while not a frontline country like Italy, has also experienced a spike in so-called secondary migration, as many of the people who arrive in southern Europe travel on and apply for asylum in northern countries.
Calling the talks “excellent”, Rutte said that “the window is open, we all sense there’s this opportunity to foster this relationship between the EU and Tunisia”.