On September 9th and 10th, EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell met with President Kais Saied and representatives from politics and civil society in Tunis to get a picture of the political and economic crisis in the flagship Arab democracy. The way out of the crisis is complex, and there is a threat of national bankruptcy. European assistance will be a balancing act between supporting and demanding.

Borrell used his visit to express European solidarity to the Tunisians in overcoming the crisis and to hearing different opinions on the matter. Additionally, he engaged in discussions regarding contributions to saving democracy that could be considered by EU institutions in Brussels.

Tunisia’s elected representatives have not used democratic governance to solve the citizens’ problems. Combating inflation, unemployment, corruption, the national debt, and the consequences of a pandemic have been lost in the dispute over “competence” between the president, the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, and the political parties.

With the approval of the people, the president seized power and declared a state of emergency. Since July 25th 2021, Kais Saied has been the sole pole of power in Tunisia. People are waiting for his roadmap out of the crisis. There are a growing number of voices, especially from civil society, who fear a relapse into authoritarian rule.

Reconciling democratic governance and efficient administration

The major challenge now is to reconcile the democratic constitution of the Tunisian state and its society with an effective, citizen-oriented governance, administration, and economy that visibly reduces corruption. There are several options for the EU to support this path without being criticized as an external meddler:

European principles must be sensitively communicated to the Tunisian president and those responsible in politics, economy, and society: to preserve the democratic acquis, in which civic and human rights play a central role, and to build a functioning separation of powers with an independent legislature and government.

Changes in the constitutional system ought to be inclusively agreed upon and implemented within the framework of the present constitution and in consensus with the parties and civil society organizations. As president and a law professor, Kais Saied repeatedly stresses the importance of law and justice. Europeans can help develop the rule of law and establish a constitutional court – key tools to combat corruption, improve democratic governance, and facilitate investment.

Diplomatic offensive

Employing joint action steps in this direction, Josep Borrell might sharpen agreement between EU institutions and EU member states, especially France, for Paris has been visibly very active in these past few weeks. It traditionally has had the most influence on Tunisian elites.

France donates a significant amount of Covid-19 vaccines. Tunisia hosts the 18th Francophone Summit in November, and in January 2022, Paris holds the EU presidency. President Emmanuel Macron has already spoken with President Kais Saied on the phone.

Collaboration with Great Britain and the US

In addition to internal European agreement, close coordination with Great Britain and the US will be most effective. Washington and London are promoting important multilateral security projects in Tunisia.

Joe Biden’s deputy security advisor Jonathan Finer was with the Tunisian president on August 13th, 2021, after the US president spoke with Kais Saied on the phone. More recently, the Tunisian president also received two parliamentary delegations.

The seven Western democracies chose a G7 statement by ambassadors to Tunisia to announce a common position on the political crisis in Tunisia. However, many Tunisians online criticized this statement as internal interference and questioned the legitimacy of the G7 compared to the United Nations.

On the one hand, this criticism reflects the freedom of opinion in Tunisia, yet it also shows that demands should be combined with solidarity-based aid. The West’s continued visible coordinated support to Tunisia in addressing the health crisis is essential.

Prevailing over the regional meddlers

The US, the UK, and the EU can send clear messages to their partners and allies in the Gulf states, especially the Emirates and Qatar, as well as Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey, to stay out of the political process in Tunisia.

In doing so, the West ought to accept that the Tunisian president, in the spirit of pan-Arab orientation, might be inclined to no longer solely focus on financial grants from the West that are linked to reform conditions.

Instead, he might ask Arab countries for deposits into the Tunisian central bank, which may not yet be directly implicitly linked to political demands to backtrack on the democracy agenda and to strengthen authoritarian presidential governance.

Financial injections and debt cuts for promised reforms

European and international financial institutions ought to break the vicious circle of injecting more money into public budgets every year without Tunisian decision-makers implementing promised social and economic reforms.

The EU can point to President Saied himself committing to reform agreements with the EU when he met with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel in Brussels in June 2021. Still, he and his government did not implement them.

Moreover, it is getting increasingly difficult to mobilize loans on acceptable terms for Tunisia. For years, the IMF has also been calling for reform steps to be taken in return for financial aid so that more secure jobs can finally be created and economic growth achieved.

A firmly agreed phased plan consisting of financial injections and debt cuts, on the one hand, and the concrete implementation of reform projects, on the other, can help to strengthen the initiative of Tunisian leaders and break the downward spiral of more spending and less revenue.

Reforms are not about disadvantages for the socially weak Tunisians but about aspects such as more independence for the central bank, connection to international digital payment transactions, for example, via PayPal, a fair and transparent tax, finance and credit system, as well as fast and leaner official procedures based more on IT. These reforms help small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups to dynamize their business, create jobs and reduce corruption.

Reviewing the interplay between reforms and support

The crisis in Tunisia also raises questions about the effectiveness of European Neighbourhood Policy instruments. It seems that EU-funded economic development measures, infrastructure projects, and financial transfers alone do not trigger the necessary social, economic, and administrative reforms required to modernize a country in terms of full economic and political participation for all of its citizens. Taking stock of how the economic, financial, and technological interdependence between the EU and its neighbors works can provide insights.

Growth in Italy, France, and Spain help Tunisia

If funds earmarked for Tunisia cannot be called up or invested, there is still an indirect way for the EU Commission to help relieve the pressure on the Tunisian labor market.  Brussels could invest these funds into the economic recovery in the southern EU member states, especially in Italy, France, and Spain, in addition to the EU Corona Reconstruction Fund. Recovery in those countries would benefit Tunisian industry and agriculture by easing the local labor market, enlarging job opportunities for Tunisian seasonal workers, and increasing remittances to families back home.