EU leaders in talks aimed at restoring stability in Tunisia

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is among those attending the talks in Tunis (Alastair Grant/AP)
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is among those attending the talks in Tunis (Alastair Grant/AP)

Tunisia is hosting the leaders of Italy, the Netherlands and the European Union for talks aimed at smoothing the way for an international bailout and restoring stability to a country that has become a major source of migration to Europe.

Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic president is balking at conditions for £1.5 billion in stalled International Monetary Fund support, which include cuts to subsidies on flour and fuel, cuts to the large public administration sector, and the privatisation of loss-making public companies.

President Kais Saied warns such moves would unleash social unrest, and bristles at what he calls Western diktats. But Tunisia’s economy is teetering towards collapse. The population is already restive, and disillusioned with both Mr Saied’s leadership and the country’s decade-long experiment with democracy.

That has pushed more and more Tunisians to risk dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe. Tunisia is also a major transit point for others seeking to migrate: sub-Saharan Africans make up the majority of those who leave from Tunisia’s shores, including some who fled racist abuse stoked by the Tunisian president earlier this year.

Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, whose country is the destination for most Europe-bound migrants leaving from Tunisia, said on Thursday: “Tunisia is a priority, because destabilisation in Tunisia would have serious repercussions on the stability of all northern Africa, and those repercussions inevitably arrive here.”

Stemming migration is a top priority for the far-right Ms Meloni, who is making her second trip to Tunisia in a week. She visited on Tuesday and returned on Sunday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen for meetings with Mr Saied.

The European leaders are bringing a packet of initiatives to improve security in Tunisia, easing the way for IMF help, Ms Meloni said.

Mark Rutte
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is among those attending the talks in Tunis (Alastair Grant/AP)

The European Commission said talks will centre on making progress on an EU-Tunisia agreement focused on the economy, energy and migration.

Tunisia’s budget deficit was aggravated by the pandemic and fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the IMF aid was stalled amid political tensions. Mr Saied disbanded parliament and had the constitution rewritten to give more power to the presidency, and has overseen a crackdown on opposition figures and independent media.

After meeting Ms Meloni on Tuesday, Mr Saied said Tunisia is struggling to cope with migrants from other African countries who settle in Tunisia or transit through, and called for international aid to fight migrant smuggling networks that “consider these immigrants as merchandise thrown into the sea or the sands of the desert”.

“Now all roads lead not only to Rome, but also to Tunisia,” he said.

While European officials are bringing proposals about security, Mr Saied said the solution is not only about security but also “tools to eliminate misery, poverty and deprivation”.

The Italian and Tunisian leaders discussed holding an international summit on migration and development with countries around the Mediterranean and from the Persian Gulf.

A migrants’ advocacy group, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, held a demonstration against Ms Meloni’s visits, and the group and some 30 other organisations issued a joint statement denouncing “the Italian government’s repressive policy towards illegal migrants and the forced repatriation of the latter to their countries of origin”.

For years, Tunisia has been one of the few countries with repatriation agreements with Italy, and so Tunisians who enter illegally and have no grounds for asylum bids are sent back.

The Tunis visit comes days after EU countries sealed agreement on a plan to share out responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorisation, the root of one of the bloc’s longest-running political crises. The plan is still in the early stages and may meet resistance at the European Parliament.