EU support to Tunisia is crucial
Since 2011, assistance from the European Union has been a crucial and a continued source of support for Tunisia’s democratic transition. According to the EU, aid to Tunisia between 2011 and 2016 amounted to $2.2 billion in grants and macroeconomic assistance, while the country received an additional $2.8 billion in concessional loans.
Such assistance has been consistently accompanied by affirmations of Europe’s “strong commitment” to Tunisia, most recently in a joint communication from the European Commission and subsequent conclusions from the European Council. While these communications outline a number of priorities that will guide EU assistance over the next several years, they fail to demonstrate a more nuanced picture of the challenges facing continued progress in Tunisia.
The most notable outcome of the EU communications is the decision to nearly double EU annual bilateral assistance to Tunisia to $330 million from 2017 to 2020. The communications also emphasise EU commitment to completing negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area by 2019, which would significantly integrate the Tunisian economy into the European Union and give Tunisian companies immediate access to the EU market.
Finally, the European Union announced plans to expand on its Mobility Partnership with Tunisia by negotiating a visa facilitation agreement, from which Tunisia would be the EU’s first southern neighbourhood to benefit.
While these conclusions are major steps in enhancing EU-Tunisian ties, the European Union should be wary of taking Tunisia’s continued transitional progress as a given.
On the economic front, the EU communications place too much dependence on Tunisia’s five-year development plan as the guiding force behind future assistance and investment.
The plan, which is to be unveiled at an investment conference in November, sees private sector development as a main driver of economic growth.
However, the Tunisian government has been relatively slow to pursue structural economic reforms and take concrete steps to strengthen the private sector, instead prioritising political progress and consensus.
While the European Union correctly noted that “structural reforms are urgently needed to pursue macroeconomic stabilisation”, its assertion that “successive governments have been committed to speeding up structural reforms” downplays the reality that such reforms have consistently been made secondary priorities, a fact demonstrated by Tunisia’s dismal growth figures.
The European Union should also be wary of possible spoilers to the implementation of economic reforms. The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), a member of the Tunisian Quartet that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, has been hailed for its role in helping Tunisia move towards political consensus. However, the UGTT has also demonstrated a clear willingness to elevate its own interests above the economic recovery of the country, leveraging strikes and demands for more jobs and higher wages to stall government progress on divisive yet necessary economic reforms.
The EU communications failed to highlight the challenge posed by actors such as the UGTT to the realisation of such critical reforms. Mere rhetorical support for Tunisia’s forthcoming five-year development plan, which will surely come up against some pushback, will not ensure that such reforms are carried out.
The EU communications also failed to place sufficient emphasis on local elections, which have been repeatedly postponed but remain crucial for the country’s overall political and social development.
The EU communications expressed support for the elections as a milestone for Tunisia’s democratic process; however, they took for granted previous reports that the elections would be in 2017 and seemed to ignore acknowledgements from Tunisian officials that the elections will not take place on schedule.
There have been no clear efforts by the government to amend the current electoral law or present a clear decentralisation strategy. The European Union’s hollow statements of support for elections represent a missed opportunity to pressure the government to move forward on this issue.
The European Union’s support for Tunisia’s democratic, economic and social progress is critical and the EU’s sustained focus on the North African country amid the spread of turbulent crises throughout the region is laudable. However, the European Union should not take continued progress or the existence of political will to implement reforms as a given.
Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the new government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who was touted as the bold new face Tunisia needed to replace former prime minister Habib Essid, will push through these reforms.
The European Union can play a more constructive role by conditioning assistance to clear reform benchmarks, such as the implementation of the country’s new investment law and tangible steps to set the stage for local elections. In order to avoid subsidising the current stagnation, the EU should complement its rhetorical and long-term support for Tunisia by leveraging its assistance to help the country achieve immediate, albeit difficult, reform benchmarks.
Ultimately, Tunisia’s success rests on the achievement of specific reforms and the government’s ability, with targeted and thoughtful assistance from its international partners, to respond to the needs of its citizens.