With an eye on reducing migrant flows, EU considers aid to Tunisia
Tunisia is heavily in debt and in discussions with the IMF for a rescue loan.
The European Union announced on Sunday that it is contemplating providing more than one billion euros in aid to Tunisia in order to bolster the country's economy and limit the flow of migrants through the Mediterranean Sea.
The North African country, which is heavily in debt and in discussions with the IMF for a rescue loan, serves as a transit point for migrants and asylum seekers making risky journeys to Europe.
Tunisia's credit rating was downgraded by Fitch on Saturday as the country faces a deep economic crisis that has caused a recurrent lack of basic necessities in recent years. The global credit agency said that "the downgrade to 'CCC-' [from CCC+] reflects uncertainty around Tunisia's ability to mobilize sufficient funding to meet its large financing requirement."
The EU is prepared to grant Tunisia 900 million euros in long-term aid, as well as 150 million euros in immediate assistance in order to "strengthen our relationship," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a joint visit with Italian and Dutch Prime Ministers.
The assistance would be conditioned on the approval of the almost $2 billion loan presently being negotiated with the International Monetary Fund, according to details on the European Commission's website.
Last year, Tunisia signed an in-principle agreement with the IMF for a $2 billion rescue loan.
Tunisian President Kais Saied, however, rejected the Washington-based lender's "diktats" once more on Tuesday.
Von der Leyen stated that the package would assist Tunisia with border control and combating human trafficking, with assistance totaling 100 million euros this year.
According to Von der Leyen, "We both have a vast interest in breaking the cynical business model of smugglers and traffickers," adding that it is "horrible" how human lives are risked for profit.
She added that other cooperative initiatives would give Tunisia an opportunity to export clean renewable energy to Europe and provide high-speed broadband, under the pretext of creating employment and boosting growth in Tunisia.
Following the four-way negotiations with Saied, Von der Leyen stated that she believed an EU-Tunisia deal might be inked before the next European summit later this month.
Von der Leyen expressed that the EU is Tunisia's top partner and highlighted that it helped support its "path to democracy" during the so-called "Arab Spring" in 2011. She described that support journey as a "long and difficult road."
Von der Leyen traveled to Tunisia alongside Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Dutch colleague Mark Rutte to meet with Saied, who has had nearly entire control of the nation since 2021.
Human rights organizations have accused him of "authoritarian drift" for curtailing civil freedoms and imprisoning opposition activists in what Amnesty International has called a "witch hunt".
The Middle East Institute Switzerland's Andrea Cellino Tweeted that the money sounded like it was "for nothing." He believes the EU should play a more active role in holding its administration accountable.
Under pressure to curb migrant arrivals, EU leaders agreed last week on initiatives to expedite migrant returns to their countries of origin or "safe" transit countries, notably Tunisia.
Meloni, Italy's far-right premier, said she was "satisfied" with the EU's promise to curtail the migrant crisis during her second visit this week.
According to the UNHCR, 51,215 migrants have landed illegally by sea in Italy this year, an increase of more than 150 percent over last year, and nearly 1,000 have perished or disappeared at sea.
Tunisian rights activists charged Saied with hate speech after he said in February that "hordes" of Sub-Saharan Africans were to blame for increased crime and constituted a "demographic" danger to the Arab-majority country.
Following his speech, there was an increase in violence against migrants, and hundreds fled the country.
On Saturday, Saied visited a migrant camp in the coastal city of Sfax and stated his opposition to Tunisia being Europe's "border guard."
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights condemned the European leaders' visit as an effort to "blackmail" Tunisia with financial aid in exchange for increased border monitoring.