Spanish PM to visit Tunis for bilateral talks, the first in years

Tunisia and Spain face a common jihadist threat.
Thursday 22/02/2018
Spanish Prime minister Mariano Rajoy at 'La Moncloa' palace in Madrid on February 6. (AFP)
Spanish Prime minister Mariano Rajoy at 'La Moncloa' palace in Madrid on February 6. (AFP)

TUNIS - Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is scheduled for an official state visit to Tunis on February 26, the first by a Spanish head of government since the “Arab spring” uprisings erupted in Tunisia in 2011.

Rajoy, who will be accompanied by Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis and other high-level officials, is expected to relay Spain’s support to Tunisia as it continues in its democratic transition, Spanish media reported.

Meeting with Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Rajoy will focus on enhancing political and economic ties and counter the threat of jihadism, with the two leaders expected to sign 12 cooperation agreements on defence, the economy, financing and other areas.

The high-level meetings, the first between Spain and Tunisia since 2008, come as Tunisia battles a stagnant economy and growing debt and as Spain faces a wave of migration on its southern borders. In 2017, more than 21,000 migrants and refugees trekked the Mediterranean to reach Spain, a 300% increase from the previous year.

The two countries face the common threat of jihadist networks, having each fallen victim to attacks in recent years. Spain, last August, suffered terror attacks in Barcelona, Cambrils and Alcanar, which claimed the lives of 15 people and injured more than 100. Most of the suspects of the attacks were Moroccan nationals or of Moroccan origin.

Tunisia was hit by a series of terror attacks in 2015 at tourist sites that claimed the lives of 60 people, mostly European tourists, devastating the country’s tourist industry.

Trade and security issues are expected to feature prominently in Rajoy’s agenda, which will include meetings with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and the Tunisian parliament, news site “leaders.com.tn” reported.

Future agreements between Spain and Tunisia are likely to build off a strategic framework that goes back decades.

In 1995, former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez signed a bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, leading to a tenfold increase in bilateral trade.

The countries promised to go further in 2008, when the countries’ heads of government expressed interest in developing closer economic and commercial ties and said they would strive to be “committed and close” in their involvement in the Union for the Mediterranean, an intergovernmental body based in Barcelona that both states are members of.

However, large-scale trade and investment failed to materialise after Tunisia went through years of political instability and tumult following the 2011 revolution.

Rajoy’s trip comes when he is looking to shore up ties with countries in the region. Before going to Tunisia, Rajoy travelled to Brussels for an informal meeting with EU leaders. He is scheduled to travel to Cyprus in March and would likely participate in a bilateral summit in Algeria in April.

Spain has been plagued by the fallout of a Catalan independence referendum last October, in which more than 90% of voters declared support for an independent state. The move was met with mixed signals in the Maghreb, where governments in Morocco and Algeria are struggling to keep independence movements within their own borders at bay.