Helping Tunisia will help Europe

Friday 01/04/2016
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) greeting European Parliament President Martin Schulz

The 2011 Tunisia revolution was rooted in three unmet expectations: more political openness, improved social conditions and greater economic opportunity.

During the past five years, Tu­nisia has successfully addressed the first expectation by agreeing to a consensual constitution that preserves women’s rights and introduces broad new liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly, worship or belief.

But what has been accomplished in meeting the two other expecta­tions?

Consider some disturbing facts:

— Before 2011, the percentage of Tunisians living below the poverty line was said to be about 4%. Im­mediately after the revolution, it was found to be around 18%.

— Despite literacy programmes that began in the early years of independence, 18.5% of Tunisia’s population is illiterate.

— The unemployment rate went from 13% in 2011 to 18% in 2013 and is still 15.6%. The rate among young university graduates has been around 30%. In the interior regions, unemployment rose to as high as 40%.

— The economy at the time of the revolution was able to provide only 60,000 new jobs a year, even at a 4% growth rate. The annual demand for jobs, however, was around 90,000. About 90% of new job seekers were university gradu­ates while the economy was based on outsourcing, low-wage levels and low added-value sectors.

The Tunisian revolution was dubbed the Facebook revolution because the use of the internet and social media by young Tunisians made the world an immediate wit­ness to the uprising.

Yet after the revolution, the percentage of Tunisian households with a home computer was no more than 15%, ranging from 25% in greater Tunis to 3% for west-central Tunisia, the soft underbelly of the country.

In short, nothing has been done since 2011 to fulfil the social and economic expectations. On the contrary, the economic and social situation has deteriorated and peo­ple feel more nervous, impatient and angry.

Tunisia’s investment rate fell from 24% of gross domestic product (GDP) before the revolu­tion to less than 15% today and has dropped in all areas: public, pri­vate, domestic and foreign. Public investment, which was 10% of GDP in 2011, is now less than 4%.

Direct foreign investment fell from 3.4% of GDP to less than 2.2%. Tunisia’s fiscal deficit has widened from -1% in 2010 to -4.8% in 2015 and public debt rose from 40% in 2010 to 52% at the end of 2015.

Political instability, economic uncertainty, lack of vision and the absence of effective economic and social programmes are creating a lack of confidence in the country.

Given the government’s short­age of resources, the only way to deal with the current situation is to pursue Private-Public Partnerships (PPP). In 2015 Tunisia adopted a PPP framework law but it is neither sufficient nor necessary. What is needed is the conviction among decision makers that such partner­ships are a necessity and the only way to meet economic needs.

Tunisia’s needs over the next ten years are huge and above its cur­rent capacities. To answer the com­ing demand of 1.5 million new jobs will require $45 billion of invest­ment. Infrastructure needs require an equivalent level of investment.

This amount is beyond Tunisia’s financial and management pos­sibilities.

In the face of such huge needs, how has the international commu­nity proposed to assist Tunisia?

Europe, Tunisia’s closest and traditional partner, is offering to negotiate a new free trade agree­ment: complete and thorough.

But even if Tunisia does not have a credible alternative to such an agreement, it is inadequate and inappropriate for the current situ­ation, which is no longer “business as usual”.

Tunisia and Europe need to radi­cally change the mindset governing their relations.

Peace, wealth and inclusive development in Tunisia are a global good. The responsibility to imple­ment them is no longer Tunisia’s alone. The lack of peace or wealth in Tunisia will immediately impact not only other Maghreb countries, but also Europe and, more specifi­cally, south European countries.

Europe first saw an influx of illegal migrants from Tunisia and Libya to Lampedusa in 2011. How­ever, that was nothing compared to the recent influx from the Middle East, which is shaking Europe at its institutional foundations. But even the current influx will seem small compared to what we could see if the Islamic State (ISIS) expands into the Maghreb. Tunisia is a small country. Its needs are small and Europe is capable of helping.

However, Europe must move from a “too little, too late” kind of approach to a more proactive attitude.

We must understand our com­mon destiny. The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Grand Bassam, Bamako and Ben Guerdane clearly demonstrate that peace and wealth are global issues that demand global answers.

Tunisia’s financial needs for the next ten years are approximately $89 billion. For Tunisia alone, it is impossible to provide. For Europe, it is doable. It requires only politi­cal will.