Everyone tried avoiding the word “migration” after the 14th session of the EU-Tunisia Association Council meeting but it still hung in the air when the EU announced massve financial assistance for the next three years to the southern Mediterranean country.
The European Union is going to spend additionally 300 million euro in 2018, the Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told the press after the meeting held in Brussels on 15 May. The money will go for the “creation of a vibrant economic environment” in Tunisia that can open jobs and engage young people in the country.
Thus, the EU financial assistance under the European Neighbourhood Instrument for a second year in the row goes at the maximum level with the EU pledging to keep the same amount till 2020.
The number of the economic migrants from the Maghreb region to Europe is on the rise and since last summer is overcoming the flows from Libya. The EU border and coast guard agency Frontex warned in its annual risk report that the bigger ships, caring more migrants to Europe are now sailing from the Tunisian and Moroccan shores.
According Frontex data from March Tunisians have become the second largest national group after Eritreans currently arriving in Italy through the Central Mediterranean route. The European Commission also reports and increase of legal departures from Tunisia to Italy, from 999 in 2016 to over 6,000 in 2017.
With high level of unemployment, young people are fleeing Tunisia in the hundreds, desperate to find better lives in Europe. Data shows that over 35% of the 15 to 24-years-old are jobless and the official unemployment rate is 14,7%, not that far from the 18,3% at the peak of the crisis in 2011.
Tunisian foreign minister Khémaies Jhinaoui denied more migrants are heading to Europe insisting:
Tunisia has made colossal efforts to control the border better and the number of Tunisians who emigrate is far less than a few years ago”.
But the EU is still hoping to sign an readmission agreement with its North African neighbor no later than in 2019.
In return the EU is ready to help, the EU top diplomat Federica Mogherini assures:
Tunisia is a privileged partner and will continue to have our support during the difficult period of democratic transition and social and economic transformation”.
The European Commission approved in October the disbursement of the second tranche of a €200 million loan to Tunisia, part of the second Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA-II) programme of €500 million.
The money announced by Commissioner Hahn is in supplementary grants that are coming on top of the EU injection for the state budget. The 300 million is the largest possible amount the EU could give Tunisia, the joint declaration of the Association Council meeting stated.
Another €25 million EUR of support go to attract EU innovators to Tunisia with the aim of opening up to 1000 start-ups, providing with means mostly young entrepreneurs.
The EU is planning in the coming months to start three more programmes for Tunisia to support competitiveness and trade, financial inclusion and energy efficiency, the European Commission has said after the Council meeting.
Expanding future opportunities for youth will be a major component of our efforts. In addition to the € 25 million program that will create 1,000 Tunisian startups, particularly for young people, the EU will fund a new program dedicated to youth focusing on employment, employability and innovative initiatives for young Tunisians to help the socio-economic revival of the country”, the final document from the meeting states.
Since 2011 the EU has provided over €10 billion assistance to Tunisia, over 2 billion in grants, and around 7,6 billion in loans. A new mission with participation of the EU financial institutions is under preparation and is expected in the country before the end of the year to look for more options for job creation.
However, the EU generosity seems not inspired by the success of reforms as Commissioner Hahn stresses “no amount of investment will work without necessary reforms”, adding “the current economic situation urges for acceleration of reform work”.
To push for more visible results the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker is planning to visit Tunis in July. The EU is hoping the work on the free trade agreement and on readmission to be finished by the end of 2019.
The Tunisian foreign minister Khémaies Jhinaoui (pictured) speaking after the meeting in Brussels said more financial support from the EU would be needed to integrate the young in the Tunisian labour market.
Tunisia sees Europe not just as a sizable partner in economic terms but also as democratic model we want to emulate”, the minister underlined.
The government is expected to come with new ideas for further development of cooperation by the next Association council meeting in 2019.
Joint declaration from the 14th session of the EU-Tunisia Association Council (in French)
Federica Mogherini’s remarks at the press conference following the Council meeting (in French)
EU approves €200 million disbursement in Macro-Financial Assistance to Tunisia (Press release)
EU-Tunisia relations (milestones)
OMH article: EU to Further Privilege Relations with Tunisia