Tunisia and the European Union

Precarious Contradiction

For ten years now Tunisia has been the EU's biggest financial beneficiary. But why is it that the money that was intended to boost Tunisia's economy is being used to exercise political oppression, asks Mokhtar Yahyaoui

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali waves from his car as he arrives at the Rades stadium, south of Tunis, 20 March 2006 (photo: AP)
The Tunisian elite was disappointed by the fact that co-operation and partnership with the EU had resulted in funding and support for an authoritarian system

​​For ten years now, Tunisia has been receiving an average € 80 million per annum from the European Union in the form of grants, making the North African country the EU's biggest financial beneficiary. In addition to the € 80 million per annum Tunisia receives a variety of loans that are granted either by the relevant EU institutions or as part of bilateral co-operation between Tunisia and individual Member States.

Tunisia exports 82 per cent of its goods and products to the European Union, its largest sales market.

But it doesn't end there: the lion's share of the annual funds earmarked by the EU for foreign investment are channelled into Tunisia.

That being said, there is more to European-Tunisian relations that just the purely financial. Tourists from the Member States of the EU are the pillars on which the Tunisian tourist industry is built. Over one million Germans and almost as many French citizens visit the country every year.

Tourism brings an average $ 3,000 million into our country every year. The sum of financial transfers from Tunisians living abroad is similarly high. These expatriates, who number about one-tenth of the population of Tunisia, have settled mainly in the Member States of the EU.

In order to complete the picture and in order to be able to evaluate the links between Europe and Tunisia, we need only look at the number of daily flights to and from Tunisia: there are 15 flights per day between Paris and Tunis alone.

Avoiding provocations

European-Tunisian relations are also characterised by a continuity and stability that is the exception rather than the rule in international relations. And a state that maintains such relations with another state runs the risk of becoming objectively dependent on that state – at least from an economic point of view. But the question of the independence of national decisions has not to date been raised within the European-Tunisian partnership.

In paragraph 3 of the Partnership Agreement, the provision of European aid is pegged to the respect of human rights in accordance with the principles of a state governed by the rule of law. But despite the many dangerous transgressions that have been made in this area, this paragraph has been completely ignored so as to avoid provoking the Tunisian regime.

The European Union is constantly referring to Tunisia as a perfect example of its successful development policy, which is based on the application of reasonable methods and political implementation in the field of education.

The absolutist characteristics of the current system

The aim of this policy is to offer young people a broad and general education in accordance with modern curricula. Further aims are to support the position of women in both family and society in order to promote the equality of the sexes and to deal responsibly with the country's sparse resources. The intention is that these aims will ultimately lead to a positive development of Tunisian society.

But eventually the power of the president was increased and this step gradually eroded all other authority. The president's powers were extended by legislative orders, guaranteeing him immunity before the law. It was exactly these factors that gave the current system its absolutist characteristics.

Elements of a pluralist system such as organisations, parties, and trade unions exist only in theory; in truth there is no such thing as freedom of speech and the media are subject to a strict censorship. The demands for liberalisation, which came increasingly from within state institutions, were nipped in the bud.

Financing the dictatorship

With preparations for another term of office for Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which was not actually in line with the constitution, the system of domestic political isolation began in 2004. Despite the fact that efforts were made to promote economic and social development since the country's independence, the trend was now towards keeping such development to a minimum.

Social development should instead have taken the form of a graded structure within the system of political power. This system should have been shaped in accordance with the principles of a state governed by the rule of law and should have featured a variety of institutions.

This would have encouraged the development of real pluralism, an effective civil society, and normal political life and allowed the security forces to return to their intended function.

Despite the fact that Tunisia's partners within the EU and even the USA voiced doubts, the pressure they actually exerted was weak and bore no fruit whatsoever. On the contrary – in order to further the development of its model student, the EU continued to provide Tunisia with financial support. This financial aid, which was intended for other purposes, was actually used to fund a dictatorship built on the oppression and discrimination of its people.

The Tunisian elite was disappointed by the contradictory fact that co-operation and partnership with democratic systems had resulted in funding and support for a dictatorial system that met all the requirements of an absolutist system.

Silencing the opposition

It is a precarious contradiction – and one that is very difficult to accept – that a system that relies mainly on financial support from the EU, specifies the degree of its devotion and dependence by financing ghost organisations and parties and allowing certain activities to take place while at the same time accusing the opposition of betraying Tunisia and being dependent on foreign countries because the regime is only willing to enter into dialogue with representatives of institutions in the country that supports the system.

What conclusions may be drawn from the current state of this partnership? It may sound harsh, but is it not strange that the money that was intended to boost Tunisia's economy is being used to exercise political oppression, frustrate the young, and silence the voice of the opposition?

Mokhtar Yahyaoui

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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