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Letter from Tunis

Tunisia’s relations with European Union countries, where roughly a tenth of Tunisians reside, are marked by deep historical links, opportunities, and challenges writes Walid Haddouk.

Despite over two decades of partnership, it is unclear whether the EU’s approach toward Tunisia has increased the country’s economic and social wealth. Economic, demographic, and cultural realities have ensured strong political ties between Europe and Tunisia, and during all critical periods of Tunisian contemporary history, European countries have played a major role—either directly or indirectly. After the country’s independence in 1956, Tunisia’s state-building process was led to a great extent by a Europeanized political elite educated in French universities. Several decades later, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then prime minister and a former military leader responsible for internal security, took over power from president Habib Bourguiba in 1987 in what was officially described as a peaceful coup d’état, with the support of European countries, particularly Italy.

In 2010–2011, while Tunisians protested in the streets against Ben Ali’s rule, European policies toward Tunisia seemed if not complicit then at least contradictory. A few days before the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, then French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie suggested France could help Ben Ali maintain order, even though the Tunisian police’s reaction to the protests resulted in a number of deaths and injuries.

But more important than the chronology of the European presence in Tunisia is the complex, historically charged, and ambivalent relationship between Tunisia and other Arab countries, on the one hand, and European states, on the other. The EU’s approach to Tunisia can be summed up as confused.

Despite over two decades of partnership, it is unclear whether the EU’s approach toward Tunisia has increased the country’s economic and social wealth. While EU member states may have different priorities and consequently different ways of dealing with Tunisian realities, only the EU itself has an institutional (if not bureaucratic) strategy. The European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument aims roughly to expand the scope of current free-trade agreements and increase financial support in return for progress on political, governance, and economic reforms. The advanced partner status that was awarded to Tunisia in 2012 was a follow-up to this strategy.

The key problem with this overall approach is that while more than twenty years have passed since the conclusion of the 1995 EU-Tunisia Association Agreement, there is no evidence of how free trade would boost Tunisia’s economic and social wealth. From an economic perspective, several studies have suggested that the deal has had no significant positive impact on productivity, employment, or manufacturing growth. Some observers and Tunisian business actors go so far as to argue that the failure of Tunisia’s economic model could be due to the trade liberalization that followed the 1995 agreement.

To be fair, the causes of Tunisia’s economic difficulties in recent decades are various, but to some extent, European support in the economic field seems inappropriate. For example, when it comes to the credit lines that are provided to Tunisian financial institutions, only large companies and, in the words of the World Bank, Tunisian “crony capitalism” seem to be the main beneficiaries.

As a matter of fact, access to the EU market and to its financial assistance is widely seen in Tunisia as an economic opportunity that is captured by well-connected people. It is as though European support were another form of rent in a country in which economic incentives are used as vehicles for rent creation. In the fall of 2015, small-scale farmers in Tunisia’s south protested during the harvesting season against big distribution chains and market monopolies and demanded fair access to export opportunities.

More broadly, EU programs in Tunisia are perceived as privileges granted to those who advocate a certain vision that is not necessarily inclusive—or, to be more precise, that should be subjected to an open, intrasocietal debate. This debate may also address religion, domestic politics, and other particularly sensitive social issues.

As for EU support for local civil society, many Tunisians consider such support as an attempt by Europeans to exercise cultural hegemony. To cite one example, during a focus group discussion with representatives of grassroots organizations in the south of the country, one question particularly drew my attention: “Why must we submit proposals to some donors, such as the European Commission, in French or English?” This is a question worth examining, considering that the official language of Tunisia is Arabic and that limiting the languages of funding proposals to French and English constitutes a major obstacle for many local civil society organizations that are keen to access EU opportunities but do not have sufficient command of either of these two languages. This example is not unique to the EU but applies to most foreign funders.

In 2012, during an official meeting between former president Moncef Marzouki and former EU special representative for the Southern Mediterranean Bernardino León, in which I participated as a member of the presidential staff, León expressed his concern at a Tunisian initiative to resuscitate the Arab Maghreb Union, which comprises Tunisia and four other North African nations, and wondered whether this move would affect Tunisia’s relationship with EU countries. Although the concern was diplomatically expressed, I must confess my surprise at the time: What if a Tunisian official had raised concerns at improving relations between European countries?

Despite all of this, Tunisians look forward to a balanced framework for cooperation with EU countries. However, such a framework requires the EU, when dealing with common interests ranging from migration issues to economic cooperation programs, to consider the essence of the 2011 Tunisian Revolution: dignity.

Walid Haddouk is a Tunisian independent researcher, civil society activist, and former adviser to the Tunisian president. This article was first published by Judy Dempsey’s strategic Europe under the auspices of Carnegie Europe. more information can be found at

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