One day after the signing of the migration agreement, many Tunisians are still unclear as to exactly what the “Memorandum of Understanding” between Tunisia and the European Union says. However, the Tunisian media see the friendly reception of the Europeans in the presidential palace in Tunis-Carthage alone as the beginning of a new era between Europe and the southern Mediterranean region. The mood among EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and their Dutch colleague Mark Rutte was downright boisterous. Even the host, Kais Saied, appeared more relaxed than he had seldom since his surprising election to the presidency four years ago.
These positive images were perhaps the most important message of the trio’s second visit to Tunis in four weeks. In Tunisia, people have felt excluded from a legal route to Europe and from looking for a job there in recent years. The economic crisis that has been going on in Tunisia since the Corona pandemic is also contributing to this. Even middle-class Tunisians, out of desperation, are now considering entering Europe illegally in tugboats. Because even applying for a simple tourist visa has so many hurdles that many believe they are not wanted in the Schengen area.
Kais Saied cleverly used the increasing feeling of distance from Europe for his election campaign and for his project to convert Tunisian democracy into an autocracy. The Tunisian President sharply criticized, at least behind closed doors, that the loans promised by EU countries to save Tunisia from national bankruptcy were linked to the economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The EU offers cooperation in five areas
The message from the Europeans on Sunday is that Tunisia should be brought closer to the EU again. “We all have to exchange ideas again,” said Ursula von der Leyen. After the signing, the host turned to Giorgia Melone in particular, who has traveled to Tunis for the third time this year. Saied’s speech, however, remained vague and friendly; he only went into detail about the struggle for survival of the migrants abandoned by the authorities at the Libyan and Tunisian borders. They are treated well and given water and food, and all reports to the contrary are propaganda and fake news, according to President Saied. The trio, who had traveled from Brussels and Rome, stared straight ahead at that moment.
In the future, the EU will offer Tunisia, a country with 12 million inhabitants, cooperation in five areas. In return, Kais Saied wants to take back Tunisians who are illegally living in the Schengen area and have committed crimes. Migrants from third countries should not be able to be deported to Tunisia.
The EU wants to help Tunisia, which has been suffering from a long-standing economic crisis, with reforming agriculture, with projects to combat water shortages and with attracting new investors. However, what exactly is meant by the term “reform of the economy” remains unclear. This also applies to the sums of money made available for this purpose from EU pots.
Solar energy is to flow to Europe via a power cable to Italy
Von der Leyen also wants to make Tunisia a provider of alternative energies. Brussels is paying more than 300 million euros for a power cable to be laid to Italy by 2025, through which solar energy is to flow to Europe. Tunisia is to be integrated into the European power grid. A data cable to Sicily will make Tunis a data hub between Africa and Europe.
In return for investments from Europe, the Tunisian coast guard and border guards should ensure that even fewer boats cast off in the future. 105 million euros flow immediately to the security forces. The sum is not – like the 900 million economic aid – linked to an agreement on the reform package with the International Monetary Fund. Representatives of civil society sharply criticize the unconditional help to the security authorities.
Simultaneously with the signing of the agreement, police officers had taken several migrants from their homes in the port city of Sfax and taken them out of the city on buses. Migrants therefore have little hope that their situation will improve. 80 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa abandoned at the Libyan border were rescued on Monday.
“The population and the police want to drive us out. It doesn’t matter what the contract says,” says Mohamed Amin from Omdurman in Sudan. He lacks the money to travel to Europe or to return home. Europe could at least send him a ticket home, he says.