Countless articles have been written over the last weeks about the situation in Tunisia, ten years after the Arab spring. The prevailing tone is bitter. Observers are now more inclined to describe the political, economic, and social shortcomings as well as the daunting challenges of the Tunisian transition rather than to stress how exceptional and unique it has been.
It is not only outside observers that are bitter. More significantly, a sense of disenchantment has gained ground within the Tunisian population. A recent survey published in December 2020 by Sigma Conseil shows that 67% of Tunisian citizens think that the situation has worsened since the revolution.
The fatigue has also reached western chancelleries and European institutions that have invested heavily in Tunisia over the last ten years, both in political and financial terms. Since 2011, European Union (EU) assistance to Tunisia (excluding bilateral assistance from member states) has amounted to almost €3bn (over €2bn in grants and €800mn in macro-financial assistance). Frustration is mounting in Brussels over the incapacity of Tunisian authorities to carry out reforms. With concerns over migration high on the EU political agenda, Tunisia has even become a serious source of worry for some member states, as illegal migration flows departing from Tunisia have intensified. The high frequency of visits by European interior ministers in Tunis has demonstrated the extent of these concerns.
The fatigue on the EU side, together with the difficulty on the Tunisian side to articulate its preferences and vision, have led to a stalemate in the relationship. Despite repeated declarations of intent included in Joint Press releases following Association Council meetings to outline a new “vision” and deepen the partnership, both sides have not – yet – been able to flesh out how this should be carried out.
European diplomats routinely complain about the political instability in Tunisia and the high-speed turnover of governments, which they blame for the difficulty to carry out structural reforms and to absorb EU financial assistance in an efficient way.
However, European institutions have also started to develop a more introspective reflection over its own instruments and their efficiency. In the face of stalled negotiations over the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, of the outright rejection of the readmission-of-third country-nationals clause that the EU has linked with visa facilitation, there is a growing sense that some traditional pillars of its engagement in Tunisia and more generally in its southern neighbourhood need to be adjusted.
This reflection is bound to gain traction with the envisaged publication of a Joint Communication by the European Commission and the High representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on a renewed partnership with the Southern neighbourhood in the first trimester of 2020. The upcoming financial framework 2021-2027 and the new financial instrument called “Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument” with its €19,323mn earmarked for the neighbourhood) should also give the EU the possibility to respond to challenges in a more flexible and pragmatic way.
Moreover, the European Commission’s new priorities on the green deal, the digital agenda and an economy that works for all, are likely to reverberate across EU’s relations with its southern neighbourhood. The socio-economic fallout of the pandemic in Tunisia is yet another incentive to intensify efforts to promote a sustainable and inclusive growth in the country, and to do more for vulnerable groups. In doing so, the EU will build on orientations it has started to promote over the last years, as illustrated in the “Single Support Framework EU-Tunisia” (2017-2020)”, whereby one of the three sectors identified consists of “reinforcing social cohesion between generations and regions”.
On the trade and investment front, it remains to be seen to what extent the debate over shortening European supply chains (“near shoring”) could be a game changer for EU-Tunisia relations. Despite its complexity, the idea to relocate some supply sites of European businesses to countries such as Tunisia has gained traction as a combined result of the debate about EU’s strategic sovereignty (which includes the idea to reduce EU’s supply dependence on a limited number of remote countries) and as result of the Covid-19 pandemic which has highlighted the problems of the reliance on long and complex supply chains.
On the migration front, the relationship is likely to become more transactional. Pressed to do more to control illegal flows of migration, Tunisia will expect the EU and its member states to increase their support and renew their offer in terms of legal migration channels.
2021 will be an important year for Tunisian multilateral diplomacy. Tunisia will host the Summit of the Francophonie and will have a seat as a non-permanent member of the Security Council for the second year in a row. Let’s hope 2021 will be equally significant for the EU-Tunisia relationship and that the Joint Press Release of the 16th EU-Tunisia Association Council will not postpone their outline for a new vision for the partnership to 2022.
 “Both partners aim to continue strengthening their relations beyond 2020 and have agreed to reflect further on the future vision for the partnership before the next meeting of the Association Council in 2019,” Extract from the the Joint Press Release on the occasion of the 14th meeting of the EU-Tunisia Association Council- May 2018. “We reiterated our desire to continue and intensify our joint discussion on the future of EU-Tunisia relations after 2020, so as to explore ways of deepening our partnership and give practical expression to the unique ties that bind us.” Extract from the the Joint Press Release on the occasion of the 15th meeting of the EU-Tunisia Association Council- May 2019.