EU support to Tunisia is crucial

Sunday 23/10/2016
EU’s sustained focus on North African country is laudable

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.