Tunisian political class shocked over EU blacklisting of country

The move could adversely affect Tunisia’s credibility and hinder foreign investment.
Thursday 08/02/2018
A file picture shows former Central Bank Governor Chedly Ayari during an interview in Tunis. (Reuters)
On the wrong end. A file picture shows former Central Bank Governor Chedly Ayari during an interview in Tunis. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed dismissed the governor of the central bank following a vote by the European Union that placed Tunisia on a list of countries at risk of money laundering and terrorism financing.

Central Bank Governor Chedly Ayari was dismissed February 7 shortly after European parliament voted to include Tunisia, Sri Lanka and Trinidad and Tobago in a blacklist of third-party countries accused of having “strategic deficiencies in (their) anti-money laundering and terrorism financing regimes.”

The 357-283 vote was heavily criticised by Tunisian officials and some EU representatives.

French European Parliament Member Marie-Christine Vergiat, who sits on the body’s Economics and Monetary Affairs Committee, expressed “surprise and incomprehension” at the addition of Tunisia, adding that the country did not belong in the same category as less regulated nations “Afghanistan, Syria (or) Yemen.”

MP Roberto Gualtieri, chairman of the Economics Committee, “suggested that Tunisia had been held to a more demanding standard than other countries that were not included on the list, such as Libya,” a European Parliament news release said.

The EU list of countries at risk of money laundering and terror financing, which is regularly updated, includes Iraq, Iran, Uganda and North Korea.

Tunisian officials, struggling to cope with high inflation, ballooning debt and dwindling foreign currency reserves, said the listing was not merited but affirmed their commitment to resolving the European parliament’s concerns.

Economists warned the move could adversely affect Tunisia’s credibility and hinder foreign investment.

Online site Businessnews.com.tn, in an editorial, singled out the Central Bank for the censure, saying it had long “turned a blind eye” to suspicious international transactions. The website’s chief editor accused the Tunisian parliament and high-level officials of failing to consider transparency legislation or effectively lobby EU members in Brussels after an earlier EU blacklisting measure.

Tunisian officials came under fire in December, when Tunisia was added — but swiftly removed — from the European Union’s first tax-haven blacklist.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said the country “did not merit” being put on the list and that it “hurt the image of Tu­nisia at a time when we are working to establish a state of the 21st cen­tury.”

Even after Tunisia was removed from the list in early January, Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said the country’s image was unjustly “tarnished.”

During the recent vote, EU officials recognised Tunisia as a “strategic partner” and said the listing could quickly be remedied.

“Director-General Tiina Astola, acknowledged the strategic importance of Tunisia to the EU and said it was a strong ally ‘in our common fight against terrorism,’” said the European parliament in a release. “She said the North African country would be reassessed ‘as soon as possible in 2018’ and if it was found to be implementing its high-level political commitments on anti-money laundering and terrorism financing, it would be ‘swiftly’ removed from the list.”

The European Union’s vote follows nationwide protests in Tunisia over austerity measures and tax hikes. Week-long demonstrations in early January resulted in property damage and violent clashes between security officials and protesters.

In response, officials announced they would increase aid to low-income families and extend health care to all citizens. French President Emmanuel Macron, during a recent visit to Tunis, announced increased aid to Tunisia, including $62 million to go towards youth programmes.

Economic analysts in Tunis said the blacklisting decision was a serious blow to Tunisia’s reputation when it is trying to boost foreign investment and tourism revenues.

Tunisian authorities seem intent on lobbying the European Union, the country’s main trade partner, to reverse its decision.

After meeting with Caid Essebsi following the European decision, Jhinaoui said Tunisia would “continue efforts” to keep out of “unfair lists that do not take into consideration the economic specifics of Tunisia and the structural reforms underway.”

In an official statement issued February 7, the Tunisian foreign ministry called the decision by the European Commission “unfair and hasty”.

“While it reiterates its attachment to the strategic nature of the relationship with the European Union and its commitment to the pursuit of fundamental reforms, Tunisia hopes its name is withdrawn from this list in the near future.”