Finding the Right Balance: The Conundrum of Building a Mutually-Beneficial Partnership with Tunisia

Pauline Veron

Policy Officer, European Centre for Development Policy Management - ECDPM

Tunisia’s complex political context and migration landscape 

Tunisia’s migration profile has shifted fundamentally since the early 2000s as it is becoming an important country of origin, transit and destination. As a result, Tunisia faces a range of migration challenges including growing mixed migration flows,  irregular sea crossings, and brain drain (Abderrahim, 2021). The country has made some progress toward reforming migration governance since the 2011 revolution and  the war in Libya, albeit at times under external pressure (Abderrahim, 2021; Veron,  2020). Yet practical political and economic challenges stand in the way of reform  (Abderrahim, 2021). The country has faced a succession of weak governments, a  sclerotic economy, high unemployment¹ alongside corruption in the past ten years  (Fox 2021a). In July 2021, President Kais Saied announced that he was dismissing  Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspending Parliament and governing by decree, a  move described by many as unconstitutional and a coup (Fox 2021a). These measures  exacerbate the country’s complex crises and prevent it from focusing on the social  and economic challenges that have been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis, which may  lead to social unrest and instability. 

This context makes it complicated for the country to prioritise questions related  to migration. However, European interest in Tunisia and its migration policies has  increased substantially in recent years (Abderrahim, 2021), as illustrated by the fact  that the European Union (EU) has doubled its financial assistance to the country  (Council of the EU 2021a). This can be partly explained by the rise in sea arrivals to  Italy from Tunisia since 2017 (around 40% of all sea arrivals). Migration management and border control thus remain key priorities for the EU (Abderrahim, 2021) – yet  those trying to leave Tunisia irregularly are Tunisians seeking economic opportunities  they lack at home (Veron, 2020). 

In this context, it is worth reflecting on the current EU approach in Tunisia and what  the EU’s ambitions to develop “mutually beneficial migration partnerships” with  countries in the Southern Mediterranean would mean for its partnership with Tunisia  in the future.

 The EU’s concept of mutually beneficial partnerships in the Neighbourhood 

In September 2020, the European Commission (EC) proposed a New Migration and  Asylum Pact (European Commission, 2020a), which it described as a “fresh start”  (European Commission, 2020b). A core element of the new Pact is the concept of  mutually beneficial partnerships with key third countries of origin and transit², which  are meant to be “comprehensive, balanced and tailor-made” (European Commission  2020, p. 2) and to cover “relevant aspects of migration and forced displacement”  (Council of the EU, 2021b, p.3). The Pact sees migration as central to the EU’s overall  relationships with these partner countries (European Commission 2020, p. 17).  Tunisia has been identified as one of the priority countries for these partnerships.³ 

This partnership should be based on a “tailor-made dialogue with partners centred on  respective interests and common priorities”, with the acknowledgement that the EU  and partner countries inevitably have different interests, commitments and priorities  (Council of the EU 2021: 3). Yet, the focus on returns and readmissions of the past few  years is very present in the rationale behind the Pact. On the other hand, according  to a Presidency discussion paper on the implementation of the Pact in Tunisia,  “Tunisian authorities express interest in a comprehensive approach to migration  issues, encompassing not only security aspects, but also the possibility of developing  further legal migration channels as a response to their young people’s needs, whilst  addressing demographic challenges in Europe.” (Council of the EU, 2021a, p. 5). 

Experts have overwhelmingly expressed their doubts about the “change of paradigm”  – as described by the Commission (European Commission, 2020b) – in these  partnerships, especially in light of the increased use of conditionality in the EU’s  relations with third countries. To improve cooperation on readmission, the Pact,  similarly to the new Agenda for the Mediterranean, promotes the use of a wide range  of policy tools (e.g. development cooperation, security, visa, trade, investment and  employment) (European Commission, 2020, p.17). This conditionality relies inter  alia on the revised Visa Code (Official Journal of the EU, 2019), which allows for  visa restrictions for countries that are considered not to be cooperating sufficiently  on the readmission of irregular migrants. Interestingly, 69% of Tunisian survey  respondents considered that bilateral visa facilitation mechanisms could contribute  to improve cooperation on return and reintegration. Furthermore, the Neighbourhood,  Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI)-Global Europe, the  EU’s new external action instrument for 2021-2027, provides that indicatively 10% of  the budget for the Southern Neighbourhood shall be dedicated to rewarding progress  in a series of thematic areas, including migration cooperation (Official Journal of the  EU, 2021). 

Conditionality is far from new and was always part of the attempts to establish a  partnership with Tunisia (Romeo, 2021). The 2014 EU-Tunisia Mobility Partnership, for  instance, includes the opening of negotiations for readmissions in exchange for a visa  facilitation agreement (European Commission, 2017; Rouland, 2021). However, EU  pressures have not yielded much success so far and incentives remained below the  expectations of Tunisia (Abderrahim, 2021). One may thus wonder whether such an  approach leads to a balance of power in favour of the EU that is ultimately ineffective  and detrimental to the relationship. With this in mind, we will look at the focus of EUTunisia  cooperation on migration in the last few years in more detail.

EU-Tunisia cooperation in practice: What does it focus on and where are the gaps?

The EU had a key role in steering migration policy-making in Tunisia in recent years,  translating into a plethora of projects, with a focus on supporting Tunisia in: i) border  management ii) managing the mobility of people iii) irregular migration (Council of the  EU, 2021a). Interestingly, strengthening border management was considered as the  lowest priority for migration policy by survey respondents (see graph 1). 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Despite some major progress in reforming migration governance since 2011, Tunisia  does not have a formal national asylum system, as a comprehensive asylum law  drafted in 2014 (with financial support from the EU) has yet to be formally adopted  and implemented.4 The National Strategy on Migration (Tunisian Ministry of Social  Affairs, 2017) similarly has yet to be formally adopted and implemented, although it  is already being operationalised (including through EU support) (Abderrahim, 2021;  Veron, 2020). As highlighted by one survey respondent, “the treatment of irregular  migrants, especially sub-Saharan Africans, is below the minimum standards of  international law and conventions.” The lack of access to legal documentation leaves  them in very precarious situations, as they often end up in situations of informal  labour and exploitation and lack access to basic services.5 

Despite these challenges, the priorities of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa  (EUTF) in Tunisia focus heavily (80%) on the governance of migration policies,  institutional support and capacity-building; management of migration flows and  mobilisation of the diaspora. Little focus (20%)6 is put on the protection of vulnerable  migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in Tunisia as well as supporting the socioeconomic  integration and entrepreneurship of immigrants and refugees in Tunisia  (Veron, 2020). This might explain why 67% of survey respondents rated cooperation  with the EU on integration of migrants in Tunisia as bad or very bad (see graph 2).  Socio-economic integration of immigrants and refugees was however considered as  a high or very high priority for migration policy by 59% of survey respondents (see  graph 1). 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

This balance is in line with Tunisia’s own priorities in the area of migration (as set out  in the National Strategy on Migration), namely the mobilisation of Tunisians abroad  for investment in the country, providing social and economic assistance to Tunisian  returnees, supporting young Tunisians prone to migration in regions most affected by  emigration (Veron, 2020). 

According to experts, the fact that the law on asylum has not yet been adopted can  be explained by political leaders’ fear that Tunisia would be designated a ‘safe third  country’ and that it would create a ‘pull factor’ or that the authorities would be bound  by obligations to which they cannot respond (Veron, 2020).7 Furthermore, Tunisian  authorities fear that it would further facilitate the externalisation by the EU and its  member states of asylum and asylum processing (Veron, 2020). Pushing the country  on these aspects might thus be ineffective and counterproductive, as it hardens  Tunisia’s position and incentivises it not to establish any formal protection system. 

As irregular arrivals to the EU increased, the EU tried to place migration at the top of the  political agenda in Tunisia. Yet migration is still not a priority for the government nor  for society and is virtually absent from the political and public discourse (Abderrahim,  2021). Socio-economic development, the lack of economic opportunities, political  instability, corruption, and security are much more pressing issues for the country  (Abderrahim, 2021). This was largely confirmed by the survey results. The current  focus in EU–Tunisia cooperation on European security-oriented priorities (Roman  and Pastore, 2018) thus represents a risk not only for Tunisia as it overlooks some  other important policy issues, but also for the EU-Tunisia partnership as it creates an  imbalance in interests and priorities. 

A delicate balance: Building a win-win partnership with Tunisia 

“Only partnerships that take the interests and needs of both sides into consideration  and benefit all parties involved are likely to succeed.” (Council of the EU, 2021, p.6). In  spite of many differences, Tunisia, as much as Europe, has an interest in securing its  borders and shares similar challenges as European countries in terms of migration  pressure, public backlash against immigrants as well as a fear of creating pull factors  through generous migration policies. Yet its migration interests go beyond that  (Abderrahim, 2021). This section aims at providing some suggestions on a country  approach for Tunisia that would be mutually beneficial. 

If the EU is serious about its commitment to establish a comprehensive, balanced  and mutually beneficial partnership with Tunisia, it should resist the temptation to  pressure Tunisia to overhaul its migration policy (Abderrahim, 2021). Given the little  progress on legal and policy reform in past years, it is unclear whether additional  efforts in support of the adoption of pending laws and strategies will have immediate  benefits without the buy-in of national actors (Veron, 2020). Most openings take  place in areas benefiting Tunisians (Veron, 2020). This does not prevent the EU from  increasing its support to the protection of refugees and migrants at local level (e.g.,  through the provision of basic services by civil society, international organisations,  local authorities) (Abderrahim, 2021). 

The EU will also have to overcome its current Eurocentric and transactional approach  and avoid placing migration too high on the agenda as long as it is not a high political  priority for Tunisia (Abderrahim, 2021). Yet, the Tunisian Government also has a  responsibility, namely to provide opportunities to its citizens as well as to migrants  living on its territory. Building economic opportunities and addressing the root causes  of irregular migration was indeed perceived as the highest priority of migration policy  by survey respondents, while fostering regular migration and mobility was the second  highest priority. The EU can help by promoting legal migration pathways and circular  migration (to attenuate the challenge of brain drain8). This could build on existing  member states’ and EU-funded pilot projects (Abderrahim, 2021; Council of the EU,  2021a). Talent Partnerships (European Commission 2021) – a key initiative under  the New Pact on Migration and Asylum for which Tunisia will be a pilot country –  could also be a useful entry point, as they are meant to match the skills of Tunisian  workers with the labour market needs inside the EU. Yet legal migration initiatives  have long been neglected in the EU’s partnership with third countries, and it is unlikely  that incentives to make these initiatives successful will change significantly in the  short term (Martín 2021). 

Any intervention in this field will have to take into account the acute political crisis in  the country. Beyond financial assistance, and as it is still in the process of developing  its democracy and building strong and durable institutions, institutional support (e.g.  on cross-government coordination) has to remain a key part of the EU’s approach  (Veron 2020; Abderrahim, 2021).

This will deliver positive outcomes, including on  migration. However, it requires a longer term perspective that the EU is not used to  adopting (Abderrahim, 2021).  A mutually beneficial partnership is primarily based on trust and dialogue. Bilateral  political consultations could be a good mechanism to frame a broader dialogue on  issues of mutual interest, including economic development, although government  buy-in would be necessary to make it productive and mutually beneficial (Veron  2020). Ultimately, a more pragmatic and less ambitious approach might be needed  to build trust, e.g. through a focus on uncontroversial areas (Abderrahim, 2021). Such  a sustainable and mutually beneficial partnership would most definitely generate  incremental gains that recent approaches and high-level political frameworks have  not been able to generate anymore. 

Notes

1. 18% overall and 42% among the youth in the second quarter of 2021 (Saleh, 2021a; Saleh, 2021b).
2. The Joint Communication on a Renewed partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood (“A new Agenda for the Mediterranean”) is also
centered around these comprehensive, tailor-made and mutually beneficial partnerships to address the challenges of forced displacement and
irregular migration (European Commission & HR/VP 2021).
3. These priority countries take into consideration geographical balance; the relevance of migration flows towards Europe; the potential for
expanding existing cooperation on all relevant aspects of migration policy; as well as current challenges, including returns and readmissions
(Council of the EU, 2021c; Council of the EU, 2021d; Council of the EU, 2021a).
4. UNHCR carries out registration of asylum-seekers and refugee status determination on behalf of the government. Yet the documentation
provided by UNHCR is not formally recognised by authorities (Veron, 2020).
5. These challenges have been greatly reinforced by COVID-19 (Veron, 2020).
6. These percentages refer to the breakdown of funding between the priorities of the EUTF, according to the EU, referred to in more details in
“Tunisia: Possibilities for reform and implementation of migrant reception and protection”
7. Such as setting up refugee status determination structures, reception, assistance for asylum-seekers, integration of recognised refugees etc.
8. Regular departures of the highly skilled are on the rise, putting the spotlight on brain drain and its long-term impact on the country’s
development (Abderrahim, 2021).

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