A draft resolution of the European Parliament condemning human rights practices in Tunisia has revealed that discord is mounting among the European countries regarding their positions on Tunisia’s domestic affairs.
On 16 March, the European Parliament called for the suspension of EU support programmes for Tunisia’s justice and interior ministries due to the “deteriorating” human rights conditions in the country. The resolution expressed European concern at what the Parliament said was Tunisian President Kais Saied’s “exploitation” of the “poor” social and economic conditions in Tunisia in order to reverse the democratic transition in the country.
The European Parliament’s resolution was issued in tandem with domestic changes in Tunisia as well as other developments between Tunisia and Europe. In February, Saied issued a decision to expel Esther Lynch, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, from Tunisia after she had taken “part in a demonstration organised by the UGTT [The Tunisian Trade Union Federation] and made comments that constituted blatant interference in Tunisia’s internal affairs,” according to a statement by the Tunisian presidency.
The European Parliament resolution has also been driven by some Tunisian political forces’ refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the new Tunisian parliament. The Tunisian opposition National Salvation Front announced on 12 March that it would refuse to recognise the new parliament, as it is “based on the constitution of an illegal coup and elections that were boycotted by the overwhelming majority.”
Two days later, Tunisia’s Democratic Current announced its adoption of the same position.
At the same time, tensions have been rising between Saied and his political opponents. The two sides have exchanged threats, with Saied saying in mid-March that “conspiring against society’s security is no less dangerous than conspiring against the state’s security” and adding that “no tolerance will be shown for those who seek to compromise [security].”
Some within the European Union believe that the democratic experiment in Tunisia is failing, especially in the light of the instability in the country, conflicts within the ruling parties, the mobilisation of people on the streets, and the employment of professional and labour unions to increase pressure on the regime.
Some European forces had previously expressed their concerns about the decline in democratic standards in Tunisia since the exceptional measures came into force on 25 July 2021 and up until the country’s recent legislative elections, which caused heated controversy in the country.
The concerns in the European Parliament have not been based on a possible retreat of the democratic state in Tunisia, however. Instead, the parliament has directed harsh criticisms against other democratic breaches in the country, accusing Saied of seeking to undermine rights and the freedoms of political opponents.
But despite these criticisms and the call to halt EU aid programmes, the EU still wants to maintain cooperation with Tunisia, because the alternatives are not in line with its vision concerning the multiple crises in the Middle East.
According to observers, the European Parliament resolution will not affect relations between the EU and Tunisia, especially in the light of increasing calls for support for Tunisia in dealing with the wave of refugees trying to reach Europe.
The main reason the parliament issued its resolution was therefore not to sanction Tunisia or its ruling regime, but rather to warn against the repercussions of any regression in domestic affairs and political polarisation.
The European countries concerned with the Tunisian crisis have attempted to send a signal to the country, albeit without severing ties, in order to be able to continue supporting Tunisia’s policies on combating migration, to be part of the security coordination against extremist groups, and to continue using Tunisia to enhance their influence in North Africa.
French influence has been marginalised in much of West Africa after the withdrawal of its military forces from the Sahel and Sahara regions, and its influence in North Africa has been waning as a result of ongoing contention with the Arab Maghreb countries.
Some European countries have gone to great lengths to support Tunisia, prime among them France, while at the same time not distancing themselves from the European Parliament resolution and other actions.
French President Emmanuel Macron has called on Saied to initiate a national dialogue in Tunisia in which all political and civil forces would participate. He said it was important for Tunisia to go ahead with its political and constitutional reforms within the framework of such a dialogue, while emphasising French support for Tunisian efforts to acquire a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and saying that France stood ready to help meet the food needs of the Tunisian people in the light of shortages due to the Ukraine crisis.
European calls for action to help Tunisia face the increasing wave of refugees coming into the country are getting louder, with many European countries wanting to support Tunisian efforts to stem clandestine migration and halt illegal immigration across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that her country would push for immediate European responses to support the North African countries, led by Tunisia, in fighting illegal immigration and in dealing with the present economic and institutional crisis. Rome is the second-largest foreign investor in Tunisia after France, and it has pledged to mobilise European support to provide urgent aid to the country.
The resolution by the European Parliament will undoubtedly increase pressure on Tunisia and compromise the image of the Tunisian government internationally. However, the EU is being careful to maintain its ties with Tunisia, seeing this as a way of securing the Mediterranean Sea against the threats of illegal migration and eliminate the dangers of armed groups.
Above all, Tunisia remains a critical gateway for Europe in consolidating its influence in North and West Africa.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly