A top trio of EU politicians made their way to Tunisia to hold talks with Tunisian ruler Kais Saïed to explore ways in which the Union’s migration course, which had been negotiated over the past few months, could also be realised. The trip to Tunis was obviously related to the new rules for asylum procedures in Europe, which the member states agreed on in Luxembourg. If they become law, border states like Italy will take on far more responsibilities in dealing with migrants. They also have to handle fast track procedures for asylum seekers with little chance of success. In return, the other EU countries would undertake to take asylum seekers from Italy, although they can also buy their way out of it.
The Italian Prime Minister Meloni represented the countries that are particularly hard hit by irregular migration. In addition to Italy, it is Greece in particular that has already exhausted its absorption capacity. They are left with nothing but simply sending the majority of refugees on instead of registering them and completing the asylum procedures, as the EU rules actually stipulate. On the trip to North Africa, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte represented the countries where the many unregistered refugees arrive and in whose societies resistance is growing. Ursula von der Leyen is the top head of the EU Commission, and many in the EU accuse her of neglecting the issue of migration for a long time in view of the Covid crisis and Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
The European Union’s relations with the states of the Maghreb come under the heading of “Southern Neighbourhood”. In response to the Arab Spring, the EU tried to tie governments even closer in order to strengthen the pro-democracy movement. But Tunisia in particular is an example of how a country is developing backwards again.
Money has long been a tried and tested means of solving problems in the EU, including in the context of migration policy. The EU pays many African states millions for border security, the fight against human trafficking, for search and rescue operations as part of agreements. The money also goes to all the countries of the Maghreb, even to Libya. After the EU trio’s trip to Tunis, von der Leyen announced that Tunisia would receive an additional 100 million, which would triple the grants previously paid, but that’s not all: the sums that top European politicians offered the Tunisian President bear witness to a new dimension of migration policy: the EU apparently wants to nurture the Maghreb state, which is ailing in every respect, into a strategic partner in matters of migration, because the majority of the refugees arriving in Europe are currently coming from Tunisia.
150 million euros in immediate state aid, a further 900 million euros in macroeconomic aid, comprehensive economic cooperation, an Erasmus program for Tunisian students and much more were offered to the table of Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic head of state as a bargaining chip. Even talks about expanding the existing “privileged partnership” between Tunisia and the EU are to be continued. Critics of this policy simply call it an immoral offer. Ursula von der Leyen said respect for human rights is important for a “holistic” migration policy. The negotiations that follow will show how much the EU really values human rights. Giorgia Meloni is known to not attach too much importance to this. She wants an agreement with Tunisia at any price and would release another 700 million euros from the Italian budget for this.
There is speculation among EU diplomats that Meloni only approved the asylum pact on the condition that Ursula von der Leyen launches an aid package for Tunisia. Meloni’s interior minister was also able to negotiate a crucial passage in the agreement in Luxembourg: it is up to the member countries to decide which “safe third countries” they can send rejected asylum seekers to, who are not accepted by their home country. So it could be enough if migrants have crossed Tunisia once.
Mark Rutte’s government sided with Italy. Rutte has already negotiated the EU’s refugee agreement with Turkey, so it is reasonable to assume that Tunisia should play a similar role: the EU paid six billion euros to close escape routes and take back refugees arriving in Europe. The talks with Tunisia are about the entire African migration towards Europe, said Mark Rutte.
With the massive economic aid to the North African state, it should be ensured that the money actually reaches the people in the country. And first of all, the goal must be to prevent people from Tunisia from striving towards Europe because of the economic crisis in their country. However, the hope that Tunisia could become the EU’s extended arm when it comes to African migration policy can quickly become deceptive, as the agreement with Turkey has already shown, which has long since stopped working.
However, the EU Parliament also has a say when it comes to final negotiations on the asylum reforms with the Council of Member States. Parliament’s position, passed with the votes of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals, is broadly in line with that of the Council, but major debates are to be expected on the details. The Social Democrats in particular see it as very critical that member states should decide at their own discretion where to deport rejected asylum seekers.
But as far as Tunisia is concerned, the trip by the Brussels troika was not particularly successful: President Kaïs Saïed spoke out against transporting migrants from Europe back to Tunisia and housing them there. He described “the proposal, discreetly made by some quarters, to settle migrants in Tunisia and receive financial support for the country in return, as inhumane and inadmissible,” as reported by the official TAP news agency.
He pointed out that Tunisia itself had gone from being a country of transit to a country of destination whose “values demand that we treat irregular migrants humanely”. In February, Saïed was accused of hate speech against migrants. The announced support from Brussels apparently did not lead to greater flexibility in the negotiations on the terms of the billion-euro loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF): Not Tunisia, but the IMF “must revise its proposals in order to find a solution. They can never be presented in the form of dictation,” Saïed said, according to the agency report. “Conventional solutions” only aggravate the social crisis, which will also have a negative impact on the situation in the entire region.
For the EU it is now a matter of concretising the “comprehensive partnership pact” with Tunisia in a very short space of time. The aim is a memorandum of understanding, which the heads of state and government should approve. The Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood, Olivér Varhélyi, was entrusted with the negotiations. The senior official of the relevant Directorate-General was also in Tunis.
In Brussels, it was emphasized that a broad and long-term “partnership on an equal footing” with Tunisia is being sought. The bridge financing of 150 million euros, which is to be granted as a grant to Tunisia before it completes its negotiations with the IMF, served to stabilize the country. The cooperation will not be measured by how arrivals from Tunisia develop over the next few weeks, although that is also important. It was confirmed that, in addition to upgrading the coast guard, it is also about bringing migrants back to Tunisia who use the country as a stepping stone to Italy.
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