EU offers Tunisia aid package, seeks tighter border control

The EU is considering a major financial package for the cash-strapped nation amid a growing refugee and migrant crisis.

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From left, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte meet in Tunis, June 11, 2023 [Italian Premier Office/via AP]

The European Union is considering offering Tunisia some 900 million euros ($967m) to support its economy, plus an immediate 150 million euros ($161m) in budget support once a “necessary agreement is found”, according to European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen.

Along with von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni were in Tunisia on Sunday for talks with the country’s President Kais Saied.

Meloni, who visited Tunisia alone on June 6 on a similar mission, urged the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other countries to help Tunisia.

Tunisia’s financial concerns

The statement comes two days after Meloni said Europe may see a wave of refugees and migrants from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded.

Italy is a common destination for refugees and migrants who have fled from all over Africa and the Middle East to gather at departure points such as Tunisia to try to make it to safety in Europe.

Tunisia agreed to a loan from the IMF, but subsequently rejected the conditions with Saied saying the demanded cuts to subsidies and restructuring of state-owned companies risked igniting social unrest.

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From left, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Tunisian President Kais Saied, and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni in Tunis, June 11, 2023 [Italian Premier Office/via AP]

Any new agreement based on different reforms could take months more to negotiate, and Meloni has pushed the IMF to relax its conditions on Tunisia.

Earlier in the month, Saied proposed taxing the country’s wealthiest citizens to avoid the “foreign diktats” of the IMF.

A series of longer-term European investments – including ongoing plans for a 150 million-euro ($161m) digital cable link to Europe and a 300 million-euro renewable energy power export project – was also discussed.

Von der Leyen said the EU would also expand opportunities for young Tunisians to study, work and train in the EU to help them develop skills that could be used to boost the Tunisian economy. No mention was made of facilitating visa applications.

Deaths off the Tunisian coast

Among the priorities mentioned by von der Leyen was 100 million euros ($107m) the EU is ready to give Tunisia this year for border management, search and rescue, and returns “rooted in respect for human rights” to address migration.

A day ahead of the visit, Saied had made a surprise visit to the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax – a departure point for refugees seeking safety in Europe – where he declared that Tunisia would not become a border guard for other countries.

Days before, five African citizens died and many more went missing after three boats carrying refugees and migrants sank off Sfax.

Coastguards retrieve a body, which according to them belongs to a migrant, in Sfax, Tunisia April 26, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
Coastguard workers retrieve the body of someone they said was a refugee or migrant, in Sfax, Tunisia on April 26, 2023 [Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

The coast near Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a future in Europe.

In March, 29 asylum seekers died attempting the same journey.

Refugees and migrants are undertaking the perilous journey from Tunisia in unprecedented numbers, with Tunisian authorities saying they stopped 13,000 people from attempting the crossing from Sfax in the first three months of this year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies