On Nov. 19, 2012, Tunisia passed a milestone. It finally became a privileged member of the European Union. That status was held up for years due to human rights issues in the Ben Ali era. The agreement between Tunisia and the EU was signed on Monday the 19th on the occasion of the ninth session of the Tunisia-European Union Association Council in Brussels. The event was co-chaired by Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem and European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle. Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis was present.
This agreement allows for increased cooperation between the two parties in various fields such as scientific research, social affairs, citizen mobility (which will become easier through a comprehensive approach to immigration), job creation (especially in deprived areas) and financial assistance. In short, the EU has made a five-year commitment to give Tunisia financial and technical assistance that would improve the national economy and strengthen Tunisia’s position in the Mediterranean.
The partnership’s outlines involve a doubling of financial aid, giving Tunisian agricultural products access to the European market and the promotion of Tunisian industries. But some economists and politicians are concerned. They claim that the partnership may slow down economic reforms. For example, under the current conditions, Tunisian agricultural exports to Europe would not be competitive. Given that agriculture supports more than 12% of the Tunisian population, that sector has both economic and social roles. It also is in desperate need of financing and technical progress.
Therefore, Tunisia should not compromise on agriculture. Otherwise employment will suffer and the social system will become unbalanced. In 1995, when an agreement on a free-trade zone was signed between Tunisia and the EU, a prospective study was made on how the partnership will impact agriculture. The objective of the study was to identify the risks and examine how they can be addressed. But for the current agreement, no government institution conducted a similar study. This raises many questions given the national and international economic situation.
Popular Front spokesman Hamma Hammami organized a demonstration against the agreement in front of the Kasbah. He said that a provisional government does not have the prerogative to enter Tunisia into strategic and long-term commitments. Moreover, not all societal forces have been consulted about the agreement, thus weakening its legitimacy.
The service sector may also be harmed. The agreement calls on Tunisia to liberalize the service sector. European companies will be able to accept Tunisian bids. The problem is that reciprocity is ensured. The European service sector is difficult to liberalize when Tunisians in Europe have no freedom of movement. In addition, it is very complicated for Tunisian companies to obtain visas to enter the European market.
Unlike the Popular Front and its supporters, Democratic Alliance member Mahmoud Baroudi strongly supports the agreement. He said on the radio, “This is an exceptional agreement, which honors us. It proves that we have made progress despite the country’s difficulties. I consider [the agreement] the crowning achievement of the Tunisian people’s revolution.” He added that giving Tunisia observer status in the European Council is a source of pride for all Tunisians and an opportunity that should not be passed up. He supported his stance by basing it on the human rights issue.
Elsewhere, the talk is about the “gift” of 68 million euros that the agreement will give Tunisia. And there’s more. Each year Tunisia will receive 400 to 600 million euros. This is a colossal bailout for the coffers of a “privileged” state and will significantly benefit the state budget.
Therefore we are tempted to ask, “So what is wrong with that agreement?” The agreement is being portrayed as having nothing but benefits for Tunisia and its economy. But in fact it has a downside. The EU is interested in Tunisia and the Mediterranean region because it fears disruptions in Europe’s political and social order. Europe wants to promote economic growth in the Mediterranean region in order to reduce the latter’s big lag in wealth and employment behind Europe’s and thus close the door to immigration. Yes, Europe does not want our immigrants, be they legal or illegal. Even though the EU immigration quota has never been reached, Europe would still like to see immigration reduced.
It is clear that if in the past the EU was reluctant to grant us preferred partnership status because of human rights issues, then Tunisia should now hold fast on the issue of immigration, over which Europe seems not to want to make concessions.
The privileged partnership status was a nice invention by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Stuck between the rock of the EU’s refusal to admit Turkey and the hard place of Turkey’s insistence of being admitted, Angela Merkel invented the concept of a “privileged partner,” while she does not know what that really means. A German government member once said that “there is no partner and there is no privilege.”
Opinions remain mixed on the privileged partnership agreement. The agreement calls for five years of engagement, roadmaps that are still in the process of being developed, and has insufficiently clear horizons. Moreover, the political, economic, and social status of Tunisia is still mired in confusion. Is the time appropriate to sign this agreement? In any case, if it later becomes evident that the existing interim government committed a blunder by signing this agreement, it is not clear that it will be held accountable for its action.