Government building in Tunis, Tunisia, with Tunisian flags all around.

The EU’s role in Tunisia and the struggle for the Arab model democracy

Since the 2011 Arabellion, the EU has been strongly committed economically and politically in Tunisia to help the birthplace of the Arab Spring through the difficult period of transforming from a dictatorship into a representative democracy. Now the Tunisian democracy experiment is under stress. At the same time, financial collapse is looming. A challenge for the European Neighbourhood Policy.


Emergency decrees supplant separation of powers

On 25 July 2021, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied independently exercised his powers and declared a state of emergency. He extended this state of emergency by decree of 24 August 2021 for an indefinite period of time. With strong approval from the electorate, he suspended the separation of powers, dismissed the prime minister, appointed ministers on his own, froze the work of parliament and dissolved it a little later, lifted the immunity of MPs, and, by way of intervention into the public prosecutor’s office, had various parliamentarians and politicians indicted on corruption charges. Moreover, he imposed travel bans.

It’s unclear: restructuring or abolition of representative democracy

Slowly, the outlines of the president’s intention to transform the governmental system of 2014, which is sensitively balanced between parliamentary and presidential power, into a so-called “moderate presidential system” are becoming visible. How and when this transformation will take place is still completely unclear. The scenarios range from a presidential system with separation of powers and jurisdiction, which the president will shape in consensus with all societal groups, to continuing his authoritarian way of governing, to a system promoted by the president himself, in which the people elect local councils. These, in turn, send deputies to a national parliament, yet without being able to control the government, which is subordinate to the president. Accordingly, more and more voices from civil society are warning of a drift towards authoritarianism.

An economy in crisis, corruption, a state deficit, and the corona pandemic

The political crisis in Tunisia is taking place against a backdrop of massive economic, financial, social, and health problems. The negative consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have alarmingly intensified the structural challenges. The state deficit is huge. The debt ratio is projected at around 91.2% of GDP in 2021. The social security funds and state-owned enterprises are operating in deficit. The revenues of entire economic sectors such as tourism are falling. The GDP is collapsing by at least 8%. Unemployment is rising to 22% in the formal sector and by around 50% in the informal sector. Corruption is rampant and illegal migration to Italy is on the rise. In 2020, 13,000 people left the country, five times more than in 2019, and by the end of August 2021, 11,300 people had already emigrated.

Additionally, as recently as July 2021, the corona pandemic hit Tunisia so hard that hundreds of people died, and hospitals could no longer accommodate those in need. Fortunately, since August, the EU and 13 member states have supplied vaccines and materials to hospitals. Romania has even sent a team of experts. The hospitals, however, continue to need further continuous technical and human support.

Now Europeans worry that Europe’s extensive and intensive involvement in Tunisia, adding up to around €10 bn in official European development assistance alone since the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 (the US €1,2 bn in comparison), has not produced any sustainable results in terms of promoting democracy, a market economy, and good governance.

EU and Tunisia: strong interdependence but little influence?

The degree of interdependence between the European Union and Tunisia has grown substantially over the past ten years. The EU is responsible for 50% of Tunisia’s imports and 70% of its exports. The EU is by far the largest donor in all development aid programs in all project lines within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and through direct budget support. European engagement is also driven by the desire to help the birthplace of the Arab Revolution through the difficult period of transforming from a dictatorship to a representative democracy.

Has the EU exerted too little influence to support the fragile democracy? Even the constitutional court, so important for democracy and the separation of powers to function, has not yet been established despite constant European urging. The EU has been reluctant to impose conditionality:

Brussels and important member states have been far too lenient in dealing with many decision-makers’ unwillingness to reform (the stagnant outflow of funds for projects, as well as the slow and lackluster governance of Tunisian institutions) for fear conditionality could increase the fragility of the only Arab democracy, and concerned that it could put the EU at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Gulf States, Egypt, and Turkey.

Among Tunisian decision-makers, a mentality of receiving easy support has stealthily held sway, slackening the will to reform – many sat back and relaxed on the “democracy bonus.” Managers of European projects increasingly report that Tunisia did not have a discussion deficit but a decision-making and implementation deficit.

Implementing important laws has not progressed due to the bickering of parties in parliament, in the depths of the ballooning administration, and by blocking by important associations. Disappointment with the lack of prosperity despite democracy and the government’s inadequate pandemic management increased the electorate’s disenchantment with parliament and the parties and has now resulted in the strong endorsement of President Kais Saied’s authoritarian measures.

What can the EU do? Solidarity with the Tunisians!

In this climate, it is difficult for the EU, as it did in its declaration of 27 July 2021, to demand that the president reinstate parliament when he argues that he knows the people are backing his decisions and parliament and the parties are to blame for the unfortunate situation.

On September 9th and 10th, EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell met with President Kais Saied and representatives from politics and civil society in Tunis to get a picture of the political and economic crisis. Borrell used his visit to express European solidarity to the Tunisians in overcoming the current critical situation and to hearing different opinions on the matter. Additionally, he engaged in discussions regarding contributions to saving democracy that could be considered by EU institutions in Brussels.

Reconciling democratic governance and efficient administration

The major challenge is to reconcile the democratic constitution of the Tunisian state and its society with an effective, citizen-oriented governance, administration, and economy that visibly reduces corruption. There are several options for the EU to support this path without being criticized as an external meddler:

European principles must be sensitively communicated to the Tunisian president and those responsible in politics, economy, and society: to preserve the democratic acquis, in which civic and human rights play a central role, and to build a functioning separation of powers with an independent legislature and government.

Requirements to undertake changes in the constitutional system only within the framework of the current constitution and in consensus with the parties and civil society organizations come too late – as President Kais Saied has already distanced himself from those ideas. End of September 2021 he nominated a Prime Minister which was one of the demands posed by the EU. Kais Saied is a law professor by profession and since he repeatedly stresses the importance of law and justice, Europeans can offer to help him develop a rule of law system and to establish a constitutional court – key tools to combat corruption, improve democratic governance, and facilitate investment.

Diplomatic offensive

Employing joint action steps in this direction, Josep Borrell might sharpen agreement between EU institutions and EU member states, especially France, for Paris has been visibly very active in these past few weeks. It traditionally has had the most influence on Tunisian elites.

France donates a significant amount of Covid-19 vaccines. Tunisia hosts the 18th Francophone Summit in November, and in January 2022, Paris holds the EU presidency. President Emmanuel Macron was the first European politician to speak with President Kais Saied after his decree of July 25, 2021.

Collaboration with Great Britain and the US

In addition to internal European agreement, close coordination with Great Britain and the US will be most effective. Washington and London are promoting important multilateral security projects in Tunisia.

Prevailing over the regional meddlers

The US, the UK, and the EU can send clear messages to their partners and allies in the Gulf states, especially the Emirates and Qatar, as well as Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey, to stay out of the political process in Tunisia.

In doing so, the West ought to accept that the Tunisian president, in the spirit of pan-Arab orientation, might be inclined to no longer solely focus on financial grants from the West that are linked to reform conditions.

Instead, he might ask Arab countries for deposits into the Tunisian central bank, which may not yet be directly implicitly linked to political demands to backtrack on the democracy agenda and to strengthen authoritarian presidential governance.

Financial injections and debt cuts for promised reforms

European and international financial institutions ought to break the vicious circle of injecting more money into public budgets every year without Tunisian decision-makers implementing promised social and economic reforms. The EU can point to President Saied himself committing to reform agreements with the EU when he met with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel in Brussels in June 2021. Still, he and his government did not implement them.

Moreover, it is getting increasingly difficult to mobilize loans on acceptable terms for Tunisia. For years, the IMF has also been calling for reform steps to be taken in return for financial aid so that more secure jobs can finally be created and economic growth achieved. A firmly agreed phased plan consisting of financial injections and debt cuts, on the one hand, and the concrete implementation of reform projects, on the other, can help to strengthen the initiative of Tunisian leaders and break the downward spiral of more spending and less revenue.

Reforms are not about disadvantages for the socially weak Tunisians but about aspects such as more independence for the central bank, connection to international digital payment transactions, for example, via PayPal, a fair and transparent tax, finance and credit system, as well as fast and leaner official procedures based more on IT. These reforms help small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups to dynamize their business, create jobs and reduce corruption.

Reviewing the interplay between reforms and support

The crisis in Tunisia also raises questions about the effectiveness of European Neighbourhood Policy instruments. It seems that EU-funded economic development measures, infrastructure projects, and financial transfers alone do not trigger the necessary social, economic, and administrative reforms required to modernize a country in terms of full economic and political participation for all of its citizens. Taking stock of how the economic, financial, and technological interdependence between the EU and its neighbors works can provide insights.

Growth in Italy, France, and Spain help Tunisia

If funds earmarked for Tunisia cannot be called up or invested and/or if key democratic principles are not preserved or reinstalled, there is still an indirect way for the EU Commission to help relieve the pressure on the Tunisian labor market.  Brussels could invest these funds into the economic recovery in the southern EU member states, especially in Italy, France, and Spain, in addition to the EU Corona Reconstruction Fund. Recovery in those southern EU member states would benefit Tunisian industry and agriculture by easing the local labor market, enlarging job opportunities for Tunisian seasonal workers, and increasing remittances to families back home.

This post has also appeared in slightly modified form on the BTI Blog and the GED Blog.