The European Union signed a major deal with Tunisia on Sunday, promising the North African country as much as €1 billion ($1.12 bn) in investment, financial aid and loans in exchange for curbs on migrants leaving its shores for Europe.
The deal is a major boost for Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, an increasingly authoritarian leader who has spent the past few years dismantling the country’s democracy – a decade after a revolution there toppled a longtime dictator and sparked a region-wide rebellion against autocracy.
Tunisia had previously been described as the only democracy to have emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring movement.
“Since 2011, the European Union has been supporting Tunisia’s journey of democracy,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen after signing the agreement. “It is a long, sometimes difficult road. But these difficulties can be overcome.”
Several European lawmakers and human rights organizations have warned that any agreement that doesn’t include human rights assurances would be seen as an endorsement of Saied’s anti-democratic policies.
“In short, we are doing a deal with a dictator who is cruel and unreliable,” Dutch Member of the European Parliament Sophie in ‘t Veld said at a meeting of the body’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on Tuesday. “This deal does not align with our values, it will not be effective, and it is not concluded in a transparent and democratic way.”
That the EU signed it anyway is a testament to how desperate some European leaders have become to curb migration, analysts say.
“This is an agreement with a leader who is showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies,” Camille Le Coz, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels, told CNN. “The priority is given to fixing the problem in the short term, and curbing arrivals. Values lose.”
Saied rose to power in 2019 after the death of Tunisia’s first democratically elected president Beji Caid Essebsi.
Running as an independent, he won a landslide victory after positioning himself as a political newcomer standing up to a corrupt elite.
But democratic ideals were pushed aside in 2021, when the president embarked on a major power grab at the height of the Covid-19 crisis. He ousted the government, dissolved parliament, and began ruling by decree.
Since then, he has cracked down on freedom of the press and judicial independence, even appointing himself as attorney general. Last year, he forced through a new constitution that cemented his one-man rule and dissolved any last hopes for a democratic government. He has also been accused of being responsible for the wave of anti-Black racism in the country amid an influx of migrants.
But Tunisia’s descent into authoritarianism was not on the agenda during the high-profile European visit over the weekend and journalists were not allowed to ask questions during the event.
Instead, Saied was all smiles while posing for photos alongside von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte after signing the agreement.
Rutte’s presence was particularly striking. Just days before the trip to Tunis, he announced that he would be leaving Dutch politics after his government collapsed over migration policy.
A spokesperson for the European Commission told CNN the agreement signed with Tunisia “focused on macro-economic stability, trade and investment, green energy transition, people-to people contacts, and migration” and that the EU is addressing human rights issues in Tunisia through other channels.
The EU has long championed democracy in the Arab world, describing itself as a “firm promoter and defender of human rights and democracy across the world.” But it has in the past decade witnessed a flood of irregular migration that has seen it prioritize reducing numbers, analysts say, sometimes at the expense of its goal to promote human rights.
Around 100,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe so far this year, most of them arriving in Italy, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Many made the dangerous journey on small boats operated by people smugglers who have little regard for safety. Since 2015, more than 23,000 people have either died or gone missing while trying to reach Europe, according to the UN.
The issue has pitted EU member states against each other. On one side are receiving countries like Italy that have seen an influx of tens of thousands of people per year and have asked the EU for help to resettle them. On the other side are states like Hungary and Poland which refuse to cooperate and take their share of refugees. Both countries are governed by populist right-wing leaders who argue that they should have control over whom they admit to their territory
But whether the deal with Tunisia could actually lead to a meaningful result is another question.
For one, the pact remains vague. While von der Leyen promised last month the agreement would be worth as much €1 billion in financial aid and loans, the text doesn’t mention that figure.
“The agreement that has been published is almost entirely numberless, and it is extremely broad and unspecific, despite the fact that it is covering a lot of topics where the devil really is in the details,” Max Gallien, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, told CNN.
To dispense a substantial amount of money to Tunisia, the European Commission would also need to get support from the European Parliament and the European Council, which is made up of representatives of all EU member states.
That could be tricky. The parliament has repeatedly criticized the Tunisian leader, even adopting a resolution in March to express concern about what it called “President Saied’s authoritarian drift” and his “racist discourse against sub-Saharan migrants.”
There are also questions about the Commission’s mandate. The agreement hints that the EU will make it easier for Tunisians to get visas to come to Europe legally.
“This is a prerogative of EU member states. So the Netherlands and the [European] Commission can go to Tunis and commit to this and say the EU is going to make Vague progress on this, but if France or Germany decides that they don’t feel like it, well, they just won’t do it,” Le Coz said.
‘Destruction of democracy’
Gallien said that the lack of exact commitments in the text of the agreement means the deal is mostly symbolic.
“It is designed to show progress, to signal that they’re working together on these issues, because both sides have domestic audiences that have an interest in this, but I think it is very doubtful or very unclear at this point how much will come out of it,” he said.
But signals matter, critics say. The EU is cooperating with Tunisia on migration despite serious allegations of human rights abuses against migrants on Tunisia’s part. Tunisian forces have been accused of arbitrary detentions and inhuman treatment of migrants. And Saied himself has stoked tensions by describing migration into Tunisia from other parts of Africa as “criminal enterprise hatched at the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia.”
The Tunisian government didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
This isn’t the first time the EU has struck a deal with a North Afrian regime that has been accused of human rights abuses in order to stem migration. It brokered a similar agreement with Libya in 2017 despite documented human rights violations there. It announced additional support for Libya last year.
Gallien said Europe’s position on Tunisia’s descent into autocracy is worrying.
“We should not fall into the trap of just looking at other countries in the region and going ‘well, you know, there’s a lot of authoritarianism and consequently, Tunisia’s authoritarianism is less concerning’,” he said.
Tunisia’s democracy was not perfect, Gallien said, but “it did have a genuine attempt at developing democratic institutions.”
“This is a genuine destruction of something that has been built and consequently a narrowing of the options of a country of over 10 million people,” he added. “So, I think that is that is one reason we should be very concerned.”