Tunisia deserves better
The European Union’s foreign policy has always been its Achilles’ heel, largely due to its incoherence and its inability to outline proper strategic priorities.
As a result, Europe is finding itself going against the flow of international relations. It may also be missing out on a historic opportunity to contribute to peace and prosperity on its southern Mediterranean shore.
One significant example of Europe’s out-of-step and chaotic reaction is in the face of what has been called the “Arab spring”. After four years of pure anarchy and social economic regression, as pointed out by the emir of Kuwait during the latest Arab summit, the Arab world has taken an unprecedented leap backward, prompting some to secretly wish for a new Sykes-Picot Agreement for the Middle East and North Africa.
The Arab countries of the Mediterranean basin constitute the only structural defence against the threats of international terrorism and illegal immigration that increasingly face Europe.
If Europe’s reluctance to become involved in the morass of Libya and Yemen, and its fear of being dragged into armed conflicts are understandable, nothing explains the irresponsible attitude taken by Europe vis-à-vis Tunisia.
The laconic statement issued at the end of the 11th session of the EU-Tunisia Association Council, held on March 17th, is a perfect example. At the very moment that Tunisians are going through a unique democratic experiment, the European Union is nowhere to be seen.
Regarding the financial aid requested by Tunisia to overcome its catastrophic economic situation, which is at the root of the country’s multidimensional crisis, the European Commission has been parsimonious and ineffective in its help.
The EU Commission’s assistance to the Tunisian government dropped from $98.7m in 2011-12 to $71.3m in 2013-14. That assistance is subject to the same political conditionality as before 2011, the year the Ben Ali regime fell. Such assistance is utterly negligible when you bear in mind that Tunisia had to allocate no less than $200m in defence-related expenditures as part of its 2015 budget.
Federica Mogherini, the top EU representative for foreign affairs and political security, has recognised that, in the case of Tunisia, “the opportunities and the challenges are evenly stacked.” But she has offered no concrete solutions to demonstrate the solidarity of the European Union with Tunisia in its rebuilding efforts, even if Europe is the North African country’s top international partner.
For reasons that are difficult to fathom, Europe is not taking concrete steps towards forging the partnership of substance it needs to establish with all Mediterranean nations. Tunisians are expecting Europe to commit itself on its side with as much vigour and determination as it did when handling the Iranian nuclear dossier, especially when Europe can be much more immediately affected by the fallouts of Tunisia’s type of challenges.
On the plane of regional security, it is vital and urgent to establish close inclusive cooperation within the European Union but confusion continues to dominate European ranks. Instead of a single coherent policy that would allow cooperation among all countries of the Mediterranean, confusion and mayhem prevail. This provides terror groups with greater opportunity to destabilise the already fragile countries of the region.
Europe is not however solely responsible for the deteriorating security climate. Lethargy and the lack of coordination between countries of the Middle East and North Africa themselves have contributed to the failure of the anti-terrorism effort. The recent call by the Arab League for the creation of a joint Arab force is nonetheless a signal in the right direction.
Arab civil society also shines by its amateurism at the level of strategic and prospective thinking. There are not enough independent think-tanks that make pertinent proposals and explore future prospects of the region.
When they meet in Barcelona soon, Europeans should examine the future of their Neighbourhood Policy. Hopefully, they will take the necessary steps to identify their geostrategic priorities.
Hatem Ben Salem is a former Tunisia minister of education and deputy minister of foreign affairs. He is an international affairs analyst and a legal scholar.