This memo will address the issue of EU response to the events in Tunisia through three different aspects:
1. The political response to the uprising and the subsequent developments in the country
2. The revival of the debate on illegal immigration and EU’s strategy to tackle that issue
3. The ENP Review
Before looking at the past few months, it is important to recall some elements of the relationship between the European Union and Tunisia to better comprehend EU’s response. Tunisia was the first Mediterranean country to sign an Association Agreement in 1995, which came to force in 1998. In the 1990s, Tunisia was perceived as a front-runner for EU efforts in the region, both politically and economically. Tunisia and the EU engaged into political dialogue, democracy promotion, and Tunis was the first country to carry out projects funded by the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIHDR). It was also one of the prime beneficiaries of the MEDA fund with an average of €85 million between 1995 and 2004. Cooperation seemed to be prosperous. In 1990, EU aid development to Tunisia already represented 39 percent of Tunisia’s aid assistance, a share that has consistently been growing ever since.
The relations grew tense in the 2000s. From the good pupil of the group, Tunisia became the black sheep lagging behind the others on the political front of the cooperation. Even Syria was more open with the EU on democracy promotion. Nonetheless, both parties agreed on an Action Plan in the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy that entered into force in April 2005. Although the ENP is based on shared values, the EU had almost relinquished any efforts to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.
Yet, Tunisia and the EU cultivated a very dynamic economic cooperation. The EU is Tunisia’s first trade partner. Since 2000, EU countries have consistently represented more than 75 percent of Tunisian exports, reaching 88.5 percent in 2003. Tunisia has been the most advanced trade partner with respect to the establishment of a Euro-med free trade area by 2010. In addition, the EU started negotiations on an “enhanced status” last May.
For the period 2007-2013, the European Neighborhood Policy Instrument (ENPI), the financial tool of the ENP, has allocated €540 million for Tunisia, 300 for 2007-2010 and 240 for 2011-2013.
Caught off guard
The EU was caught off guard when revolts in Tunisia took a dramatic turn. The European Union seemed hesitant to take sides, which reflected the contrasted positions taken by member states, especially France, Spain, Italy, and Malta. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton issued her first statement jointly with Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fuele on January 10 urging “restraint in the use of force and the respect of fundamental freedoms.” EU officials remain silent on Ben Ali’s flee and the two high-level officials issued a more substantial statement on January 17, hours before Mohammed Ghannouchi announced a new government. The officials stressed that Tunisia had reached “a point of no-return” and that the authorities should ensure “a peaceful democratic transition.” The EU offered its assistance in this process, especially to prepare and organize the upcoming elections. It also indicated that it was developing a tailored-package to assist Tunisia to implement democracy reforms and economic development. The EU External Action Service (EEAS) quickly deployed a senior-level mission in the country to meet with actors on the ground from both the administration and the civil society.
By the end of January, Catherine Ashton had sketched the first signs of the kind of cooperation the EU was aiming at: in the short term, assisting in the election process as well as an update of its strategy with the country; a greater focus on the civil society; a commitment to economic cooperation. It was confirmed by the Council meeting on January 31. Its conclusions emphasized that the democratic transition would represent an opportunity for the partnership between the two sides to be strengthened “to lend support to the affirmation of democracy and to economic and social reform.” It urged the release of the political prisoners, the legalization of political parties, and an increased role for the civil society and the media. It also asserted EU’s willingness to carry on negotiations with the emerging government on Tunisia’s advanced status.
The Council met again on February 7 and took the first visible action by freezing assets of 48 people, including Ben Ali, his wife, and several members of Ben Ali’s family and that of her wife. After having been tasked by the Council to convey EU’s assistance offer to Egypt and Tunisia, Ashton went on a tour in the MENA region. At the end of her visit to Tunisia, she conveyed a strong message of support, saying that she wanted the EU “to be Tunisia’s strongest ally in their move toward democracy.” That was illustrated in the EU’s participation to the organization of the elections as well as with financial assistance. The EU decided to grant the country a €17 million emergency package on top of the €240 million for 2011-2013. Tunisia has been welcoming EU’s assistance and its Foreign Minister Ahmed Ouneies chose Brussels as his first visit on February 3. In early March, EIB representatives and Tunisians agreed on terms of assistance and the EIB earmarked an additional €1.87 billion to support the country. The largest chunk, a billion euros, is devoted to speeding up public projects (energy, road infrastructure etc.).
Managing immigration influx
Yet, the focus on Tunisia interestingly shifted. From discoursing on how to support Tunisia in its transition and how to forward “deep democracy” as Ashton calls it, the country became a growing source of concern as thousands of migrants came to Italian shores. Ben Ali’s regime was often considered as a coast-guard for EU Mediterranean countries.
Early February, Italy declared a humanitarian emergency as immigrants from North Africa, reportedly mostly Tunisians, had arrived on its shores. Frontex, EU’s migration’s agency, deployed a mission a few days after a request from the Italians. According to Italian estimates, 6000 irregular migrants had made it to Italian costs since the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia. Joint Operation Hermes was launched on February 20. The operation was three-staged. First, Malta and Italy were to deploy additional aerial and maritime assets. Second, experts would help gather information to analyze the phenomenon, discern migrants’ nationalities, and prevent criminal activities at the EU borders. Third, the operation would provide assistance on organizing return operations.
Migration flows were on the agenda of the Council meeting on March 11. The urgency of the situation seemed poignant enough that member states agree that a comprehensive strategy on dealing with this issue be designed expeditiously. According to Frontex data, the first month of the Hermes operation recorded 1,015 migrants at the reception center in Lampedusa whose country of origin was Tunisia. 14 member states have committed resources, and 8 of them are active contributors. Hermes operation was extended on March 24 until the end of August. According to Frontex data, 9,098 migrants had been recorded since the beginning of the mission.
One of the problems that the EU had to tackle was the lack of working arrangement with the Tunisian authorities on the returns. In concrete terms, it means that the Tunisian authorities have only authorized the return of a handful of migrants on commercial flights. An arrangement would allow Frontex to set up chartered flights.
Six member states called in February 23 to deal with that issue at the next Justice and Home Affairs Council. The EU ministers met on April 11 to discuss the situation. They invited Frontex to speed up negotiations on a working arrangement with Tunisia as well as organize joint patrolling operations in cooperation with Tunisian authorities. Yet the Italians felt that the EU was not living up to Rome’s expectations and created uproar from some member states, including France, Germany, and Belgium, when they decided to grant temporary Schengen visas on humanitarian grounds to the thousands of Tunisians that had arrived on its shores. The Mediterranean countries, minus France, issued a few days ago a follow-up communiqué to the first from February that reiterated the JHA Council conclusions and call for additional EU intervention.
The parallel debate between assisting Tunisia in building its democracy and counter migration flows coming from its shores has known a recent peculiar twist. On April 13, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Tunis that the EU would grant an extra €140 million to Tunisia only if its government were to take actions against the influx of migrants coming to EU shores and accept re-admission of its migrants. Tunisia had earlier accepted to take back migrants arrived after April 5, leaving about 23,000 people in a gray zone. Whether that trend will shape up more decisively is unclear.
Collusion with the ENP Review
The last aspect on which the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” had an effect is on the neighborhood policy review. The Commission had embarked on a European Neighborhood Policy Review since mid-2010. Due to the events in the MENA region and pressures from member states, the review was postponed. Debates are raging among the member states with calls to shift funds from the East to the South.
On February 18, six member states – all boarding the Mediterranean –, including France, Spain, and Greece (but not Italy), authored a non-paper on actions the EU should carry out in the Mediterranean. Following events in Egypt and Tunisia, they called for greater emphasis on the South within the ENP. The main conceptual aspects were to implement differentiation among the partners, which broadly speaking means “more for more,” and to allow more flexibility in the use of EU instruments. They suggested that the package for 2011-2013 (the second period of the 2007-2013 package) be revised in the light of the events.
They also stressed the need to put greater emphasis on the “project” dimension of the Union for Mediterranean (UfM). It was a clear call from the French, but also an attempt to get the UfM on track after a rocky start and an inability to leave the political obstacles aside, notably the Arab-Israeli conflict. The organization has been completely absent in the overall EU response. One hypothesis is that it views itself as an implementer of projects, not as a driver of policy. Another one is that the entire project has been dysfunctional so far.
The ENP review is still ongoing. It was initially expected on April 20, but has been postponed until May 10. However, the Commission and the EEAS issued a much talked-about (at least in Brussels) joint Communication on March 8. It presented a new kind of partnership for the Mediterranean countries, called “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean.” It is debatable whether it brings new impetus to the approach to the South but it shows where the momentum lies. Conceptually it rewards the idea of differentiation among the partners. It is founded on three main pillars: democratic institution building, stronger emphasis on people-to-people contacts and support to the civil society, economic development highlighting the role of the SMEs.
The EU’s response to Tunisia has revealed some interesting dynamics. On the one hand, some member states have been reticent to embrace call for change. The EU was consequently slow to move and adapt in a fast-pace environment. Its political response was weak. However, both the EU and Tunisia saw early on an opportunity to extend their cooperation emulating trends from the early 1990s. EU officials have repeatedly extended their offer of assistance to the new government and it will assist the Ben Achour commission for the electoral process. The Tunisians have also been keen to get EU’s financial support. Tunisians are aware of two factors that make the EU a key player for them: the EU is both their first aid donor and their first trade partner, hence a need to show that the country is stable and willing to grow economically.
Two factors are still unclear on how the cooperation will develop. First, it will be interesting to see how Tunisians take up on EU’s democracy promotion efforts, especially as the ENP Review is likely to emphasize that aspect, and to what extent the EU is going to tie its assistance to those aspects. Negotiations on the “enhanced status” will shed some light in that respect. Second, Tunisia has recently been a difficult partner for the EU on immigration, which has prompted surprising comments from Barroso. Next June a new Council meeting take place and several Mediterranean countries will again put the influx of illegal immigrants on the table, a debate on which Tunisia is on the frontline.