On 25 July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied partly suspended parliament and sacked the country’s prime minister. Expressing his intention to change the constitution and create a new political system, the president consolidated power in his own hands, drafting a long and opaque road map for a return to democratic rule. Although Saied claims to be working to establish a more democratic and inclusive system, his moves so far look classically authoritarian. The EU expressed its disagreement with this course of events but has been cautious in its policy response. The union’s member states, moreover, did not react in a unified manner. European criticism of Tunisia’s democratic backsliding is mounting, but without noticeable effect so far. Yet the dramatic crisis for Tunisian democracy reflects a range of weaknesses in the EU’s commitment to the country since the political breakthrough of 2011. To have any hope of helping preserve the Arab Spring’s only successful democratic transition, the EU needs to significantly upgrade its support to Tunisia by unifying its message, maintaining diplomatic pressure, and considering the risks of applying sanctions.
Under the dictatorship that lasted for most of Tunisia’s postcolonial period, the country was often described in European corridors as a close partner next door whose main problem was its lack of democracy. With the fall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the EU made Tunisia a privileged partner, giving the country among “the highest levels of EU support per capita in the world.” For a time, Tunis and Brussels appeared to be closely in step with each other, but the euphoria of 2011 gave way to stagnant cooperation, and the two partners could not upgrade their relationship further. Negotiations for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), an initiative that was supposed to bring Tunisia closer than ever to the EU, stalled. Meanwhile, EU support for democratization was substantial but had its limits, as the events of the summer of 2021 eventually showed.
Four issues explain why Brussels has proved so weak in protecting a system it has often praised as a model. First, the EU increasingly has prioritized controlling migration to the detriment of supporting democracy. European diplomats often praise Tunisian democracy and the importance of the country as a democratic partner. But many in Tunis have the impression that this talk of democratization is a cover for implementing harsher migration policies. While the EU portrays fighting informal migration as a joint priority for Europeans and Tunisians alike, this is really a European priority, not a Tunisian one. Many Tunisians would like to move to Europe, but the Tunisian authorities are working against their demands by closing down informal migration routes. Many Europeans would like Tunis to police the EU’s southern borders, seemingly regardless of the country’s political system.
The second factor relates to how the EU has secured its democratization policy in Tunisia. The EU has not acted decisively to safeguard the democratic achievements that it helped spearhead. Compared to other cases in Eastern and Central Europe, where the EU was highly attentive to the threats posed by Russia, Brussels has barely responded to the negative external influences in Tunisia stemming from tensions between the competing geopolitical axis of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt on one side and that of Turkey and Qatar on the other. As these states have undermined democracy in Tunisia over the last decade, rarely has the EU exerted any pressure or condemned their actions. Weak seeds produce withered flowers.
The third issue relates to the nature of the DCFTA talks. Europeans pressured Tunisia to move forward with this trade agreement as a condition for an improved relationship. But internal politics and deep suspicions about the proposal held Tunisia back. Political instability led to frequent changes in Tunis’s priorities and repeated shuffles in the country’s negotiating team, with discussions sometimes backtracking on previously agreed-upon points because of a lack of organization from the Tunisian side. At the same time, Tunisian civil society groups were virtually unanimous in decrying the DCFTA as a risk to the country’s political and economic sovereignty. Yet neither Tunis nor Brussels came up with an alternative, leaving the process of deepened integration pending and the diplomatic relationship fragile and lacking trust.
The fourth and most immediate weakness in the EU’s diplomatic policy toward Tunisia occurred during the coronavirus pandemic. Between June and July 2021, thousands of Tunisians died, and the country’s healthcare system approached the brink of collapse. The country lacked everything from masks and oxygen tanks to vaccine kits. As Tunisia was sinking, many European leaders looked away. Much of the rapid and immediate aid came from the country’s Arab neighbors first, not from Europeans, though France did send some assistance around this time. But it was only after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt pledged emergency assistance that more Europeans started sending substantial amounts of aid. Though they offered much more aid than the Arab states before and after Tunisia’s dire summer, the EU’s slowness to act during those fateful summer weeks had dramatic consequences for its diplomatic influence in Tunisia.
On top of these shortcomings, the EU’s and its member states’ reactions to Saied’s July 2021 quasi-coup were tepid and uncertain. The EU’s reluctance to call the power grab a coup or to unequivocally criticize the move is understandable: Tunisians had come to dislike the country’s political class so strongly that defending the fallen government or the suspended parliament would have backfired against the union. Saied has been popular since his election as president in October 2019, and the fact that his seizing of power this summer coincided with the arrival of much-needed vaccine doses and other medical aid added to his popularity. Many Tunisians have seen him as the country’s savior. Moreover, Tunisia’s dire economic conditions during the 2010s and the president’s propaganda machine made the country’s previous rulers appear to be the source of all the country’s woes. Any European condemnation of Saied could have been spun as support for Ennahda, the largest party in the country’s frozen parliament.
Still, Europeans’ mild reactions to Tunisia’s democratic erosion also appear to reflect a lack of interest in defending the country’s democracy. The EU was slow to send any envoy. The first high-level European official to visit the country and meet the president was Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. He visited Tunisia in September, a month and a half after Saied’s unilateral move. By comparison, the Saudi foreign minister visited Tunis on 30 July, his Egyptian counterpart came on 3 August, and the Emirati envoy arrived on 7 August. No high-level envoys from any EU member states visited Tunisia during this early period either. Between the July power grab and early December 2021, there was no recorded call between Saied and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. This slow response contrasts with the agility Europeans displayed in recent crises that affected the Balkans and the Caucasus, other priority regions for European democracy support.
But while the EU’s reaction was slow and mild at first, it has gradually become more critical. Borrell and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, have pressed Saied to provide a road map to get Tunisia back on its democratic track. Members of the European Parliament are increasing their criticism as well. On October 21, the European Parliament adopted a strongly worded document calling for a return to democracy in Tunisia and warning against foreign (namely Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian) interference. As for individual EU member states, the reactions to the potential collapse of Tunisian democracy have been mixed. Officials in Rome and Paris have displayed less alarm, whereas Berlin appears to be more concerned.
What can the EU do now? Europeans should act decisively on multiple fronts to try to encourage a return to democracy in Tunisia. For starters, Europeans should do all they can to help alleviate Tunisia’s economic woes. Notably, Europe should use its available expertise and new technologies to help Tunisia modernize its agricultural sector and build renewable energy infrastructure, fields that can offer Tunisia a comparative advantage and that can help quickly improve the country’s economic outlook. There are other steps Europe can take to help put Tunisia on a more solid economic footing. If and when normal politics resumes, Europeans should incentivize cooperation by cultivating more partnerships that pair European and Tunisian municipalities. Furthermore, the EU must work on formulating an alternative to the DCFTA. In the wake of Saied’s power grab and the quasi-suspension of the constitution, it is time for a new framework that transparently considers ordinary Tunisians’ grievances and comments, while equally responding to European needs and demands. And Europe also ought to consider ways of helping spur political reforms in Tunisia.
Looking beyond Tunisia’s borders, the EU and its member states should press regional authoritarian partners — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as well as Qatar and Turkey — to stop meddling in Tunisian affairs. These countries have been undermining democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa for at least a decade, through their media and social media empires, their political and military proxies, or their own direct diplomatic and military involvement. Now that Tunisia is questioning the need for democracy and at the same time looking for outside investment, one of these two regional groupings will likely try to step in. The Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis continues to seek a rapprochement with Tunis. The EU needs to head off this threat to democracy.
The EU and its member states are wondering how they can recalibrate their relationships with Tunisia over the medium term, especially if the country’s young democracy continues to be derailed. The question of sanctions is on the table, but it would be a risky route to take: Tunis could still find ways to get investment from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. China might even see the situation as a good opportunity to seek a geopolitical beachhead in North Africa. As Libya has proved, Europe’s allies can work with Europe’s foes if doing so suits their interests. Moreover, Saied’s popularity, the EU’s damaged image in Tunisia, and a strong sense of nationalism would make European sanctions counterproductive; for many Tunisians, such measures may look like imperialist aggression that would feed into the president’s populist narrative. EU leaders need to find creative ways to disburse funds, making sure that they do not support any dictatorial impulses in the country. The EU should not gamble with the prospect of standing by and letting Tunisia simply fall prey to populism and resurgent authoritarianism.
‘Has the EU Failed Democratic Tunisia?’ — Article by Youssef Cherif — Carnegie Europe.