Changes in Tunisia Prompt Reflection in EU-Foreign Relations
In the latest move towards authoritarianism in Tunisia, non-state controlled journalists have been barred from attending the first session of the new parliament. This is the first ban of its kind since 2011, when the Arab Spring protests brought down President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his authoritarian regime. While the government justified the action on the basis of preventing “disorder”, journalists gathered outside the building in Tunis in protest. The Vice President of the national journalists union has declared that, if the ban endures, the union would “opt for escalation”.
In previous weeks, comments by the current president made headlines. President Kais Saied claimed that migrants in the country were conducting a criminal plot to alter the demographic dynamics of the country, shifting it away from Arab nations of the region. Calling for an end to the flow of Sub-Saharan migrants, he also claimed that most crime in the country was carried out by these same individuals.
Shock and condemnation has been the response of many NGOs and states. The World Bank announced, just a few days later, that meetings with Tunisian authorities would be suspended, as well as the partnership between the organisation and the north African state. Ongoing World Bank projects in the country will not be affected by this announcement however.
The president’s words have caused violence to increase against sub-Saharan individuals in the country. Despite the government clarifying that the president’s words were directed at illegal migrants, and the opening up of support hotlines, many individuals have been left vulnerable. Stories of migrants who have lost their homes and jobs after the comments have increased, with some cases of houses being burnt down.
Several individuals have attempted to seek help at their national embassies in Tunisia. The Ivory Coast and Guinea have organised repatriation flights for their citizens. 21 000 undocumented migrants from countries in Africa are currently in Tunisia.
Tunisia’s Political Climate
Tunisia has seen several years of political and economic instability. Before the constitutional referendum, ten prime ministers rose to power in one decade, leading many to lose faith in the country’s capacity for change after the Arab Spring. Moreover, Tunisia has not been able to recover economically from 2011. Tunisia’s GDP still sits below the 2011 rate, and unemployment remains 3% higher than before the revolution at 16%.
Corruption in Tunisia has further hurt the reputation of Tunisia’s new and fragile democracy.
Only a few years after being considered the only Arab Spring country to still have democratically elected leaders, authoritarian tendencies have now plagued the country. In 2022, President Saied pushed for a referendum on a new constitution. With only a third of the country’s eligible population having cast a ballot, the constitution passed, reducing the powers of the country’s legislative body. Among many changes, the parliament lost its ability to impeach the president, giving him large powers.
The election that preceded this parliamentary session saw a turnout of only 11% after the opposition coalition called a boycott. The opposition coalition has now announced that they will not recognise the new assembly.
Since the constitutional change, several opposition leaders have been jailed without charges.
On the issue of migrants, Tunisia has not been the only country in the region to take a nationalistic approach. Political groupings in Egypt have also been seen calling for the end to the influx of migrants from other African nations, especially their southern neighbour Sudan. Concern over racial discrimination in Tunisia is the highest of any Arab World country, reaching 80%.
The European Union has been called out by some organisations for being silent on the issue of authoritarianism and the reduction of human rights in Tunisia. Previously, the EU had condemned Tunisia’s president’s racist rhetoric, and had called on the release of Noureddine Boutar, director of Tunisia’s largest independent radio station.
The EU parliament has now demanded the suspension of cooperation between EU institutions and the Tunisian justice and interior ministries. Between 2021 and 2024, €600 million were planned to be transferred to Tunisia, with one of the main objectives being ensuring “good governance and the rule of law”.
However, these new developments in the neighbouring country may place the EU’s migration policy in the spotlight, several years after the migration crisis that hit the EU and prompted often unpopular actions from the union. The EU has pacts with several neighbouring countries, including Tunisia, which many have dubbed the ‘externalisation’ of EU borders.
In Tunisia, €91 million has been received from the European Union for “better migration governance and management of migration flows”. Organisations have claimed that these plans are in place to limit the number of migrants that attempt the crossing of the Mediterranean, and therefore entrance into member state territories.
In 2018, Spain experienced a surge in border crossings by migrants, often entering the country through the Canary Islands or the southern mainland region of Andalusia. In October of 2018, the number of migrant arrivals in the country surpassed 10 000. In response, Madrid backed an additional investment from the EU of €140 million to Morocco to “support border management”. The European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank based in Berlin, had warned that year that the new European approach to the issue of migrant border crossings placed increased pressure on countries with fragile domestic contexts, increasing the likelihood of repressive actions.