Three terrorist attacks in March, June, and November have provided the speaking points for US lobbies and EU discourse promoting increased aid to Tunisia. Following the second Strategic Dialogue in November, US decision-makers will determine just how much of the FY2016 budget to carve out for the country. Europe, in the meantime, continues to dole out support in the name of the Privileged Partnership. Between Brussels and Tunis, EU delegates and Tunisian officials have discussed a series of assistance programs targeting security reform, border protection, tourism, and, more than anything else, trade.

Terrorism, tourism, and tightening of borders

After the March 18 attack at the Bardo Museum, the European Union declared solidarity with Tunisia inasmuch as “the security of EU neighborhood countries is that of European countries.” At a Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels several weeks after Seifeddine Rezgui killed thirty-eight tourists in Sousse, High Representative of the EU Federica Mogherini and Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid highlighted the disastrous effects of two terrorist attacks on the country’s economy, the tourism sector in particular. Mogherini pledged support for economic growth, youth employment, and the agricultural sector, and recalled the Union’s promise to allocate 23€ million for security sector reforms targeting security services, justice approach, border protection and the fight against radicalization.

Europe’s sizable contribution for Tunisia’s security reforms has turned out to be–a loan. On November 4, EU Ambassador Laura Baeza, Minister of Development Yassine Brahim, and Minister of the Interior Nejem Gharsalli signed into effect a 23€ million loan designated for the reform of inspections, recruitment, and training. Funding objectives also include the modernization of security policy to respect human rights and the country’s new constitution, as well as the establishment of an inter-ministerial emergency unit and three rapid operation facilities in Medenine, Tataouine, and Kasserine to combat cross-border criminality.

Increasing the allowance for Tunisian olive oil exports to Europe

Exceptional times call for exceptional measures,” announced Mogherini before the European Commission in September. Having previously alluded to a supplemental measure to help the agricultural sector, the Delegate presented a proposal to increase the quota of olive oil exports to Europe. On September 17, the European Commission adopted a legislative proposal offering additional temporary access for Tunisian olive oil to the EU market…”to protect Tunisia’s economy following the recent terrorist attacks.” Designated for the two-year period between 1 January 2016 – 31 December 2017, the measure would enter into effect once the current duty free tariff rate quota (56,700 tons) has been reached.

Acknowledging the economic importance of Tunisia’s olive oil sector (olive oil is the main agricultural product exported to Europe and a source of employment for more than one million people), EU commissioners described the proposal as a “concrete effort” to stimulate employment, and a “highly needed short term economic benefit” for the country. We recall that in January, the EU adopted a measure adjusting export quotas for Tunisian olive oil in order to accommodate an “excellent season of production.” More precisely, in the context of a 27% decrease in worldwide olive oil production for 2015, increased quotas for Tunisian olive oil at the height of the season helped Europe to meet demands for olive oil.

Officials lay ground for a new free trade agreement

Awaiting the projected short-term benefits for Tunisia’s olive oil sector, officials are laying ground for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). On October 13, Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, Habib Essid and Minister of Commerce Ridha Lahouel met to launch the negotiations process for a trade agreement designed to “improve market access opportunities and investment climate and support ongoing reforms.” In a conference on commercial relations and investment, Malmstrom underlined the imperative to undertake important reforms, update key sectors, and adapt Tunisian legislation to that of the EU. She insisted that trade contribute to sustainable development, maintain respect for human rights and fundamental liberties, and reflect inclusive and continued dialogue with Tunisian civil society.

Euro-Mediterranean Agreement: the framework for EU-Tunisia trade relations
The prospect of a DCFTA with Tunisia was discussed as early as March 2012, preparations were finalized in June 2014, and negotiations were set to begin after elections at the end of 2014. Tunisia was the first country to sign, in 1995, the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement which represents the legislative framework for all Tunisia-EU accords and initiatives. Since the adoption of the Agreement, Malmstrom indicated that bilateral commerce has more than doubled, and that Europe, Tunisia’s principal trade partner, received almost three-fourths of Tunisian exports and was the source of more than half of imports in 2014.

The European Commission’s report on the first round of negotiations vaguely indicates that an “important number” of Tunisian experts participated and were “well prepared” with “numerous questions on the different issues.” At a round table held on October 29, a panel of speakers detailed the history of EU support for Tunisia’s agricultural sector and praised in turn the advantages of a DCFTA in this arena. Vice President of the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (UTAP) Omar Behi evoked the opportunity presented for structural reforms and a strategy that recognizes the farmer as a principal actor of the sector.

Fifteen civil society organizations abstain from negotiations

In the early stages of DCFTA negotiations and discussions, it appears that there has been little space for concerns and criticisms. During the round table on October 29, EU Head of Trade Michaela Dodini pushed for clarification of the agreement “in order to avoid certain confusions evoked in Tunisian press” and pointed out that “Tunisia is not a big market for the EU and … the impact of DCFTA on the European economy is almost naught.” Ambassador Laura Baeza purportedly made similar remarks in November, commenting that “the presentation and perception of DCFTA as found in Tunisia media remains rather generalized and ideological…often much more critical about the agreement than civil society, with which we are in close contact…” Such prickling remarks are likely based on the findings of an EU-commissioned Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment (TSIA) which concludes that “DCFTA-induced changes can be expected to be quite important for the Tunisian economy, while almost insignificant for the EU.”

That the most well-formulated and potentially constructive of criticisms have remained on the outskirts of negotiations is as much a matter of abstention as exclusion. In the perceived haste of European officials to set the agreement in motion, some of Tunisia’s most important civil society actors have refused to engage in formal DCFTA discussions. Having demanded a moratorium on the agreement in June, fifteen organizations—including the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), and the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH)—convened on September 16 to spell out their concerns in a public statement. Considering that the project “comes at a moment when Tunisia (government and civil society) has not yet defined a shared vision of national development and has not determined its strategic objectives,” signees anticipate grave repercussions of the intended free trade agreement, including:

  • prioritization of purely commercial exchanges and direct foreign investment drawn to low costs of labor;
  • destabilization of small and medium businesses as well as a number of sectors, particularly the agricultural sector;
  • increased budgetary and external deficits;
  • diminished State capacity for economic regulation.

Economists and press outlets have echoed the tone of alarm, warning the country not to rush the negotiations process and arguing that a free trade agreement with Europe is not among the country’s economic priorities. Many have denounced the strictly commercial nature of the EU-Tunisia partnership which has not improved Tunisia’s competitiveness in the global market nor generally served its economic interests. Citing the case of Morocco–where DCFTA negotiations have remained on standby while the Ministry of Commerce carries out its own comprehensive trade evaluation–critics of a DCFTA with Tunisia have demanded the completion of an objective and transparent impact study. Some have even recommended that the undertaking follow a comprehensive evaluation of the economic impacts of the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement since 1995.

With each measure of “support” the EU has offered Tunisia—whether in the form of a sizable loan for security reforms, or a free trade agreement for economic growth—particular emphasis has been placed on the recent successes and imperative role of civil society in the country’s path to democracy. But if what Tunisian civil society demands is a shifting of the scales and the establishment of a partnership based on reciprocity, is Europe really ready to listen?