Since the 2011 Arabellion, the EU has been strongly committed economically and politically in Tunisia to help the birthplace of the Arab Spring through the difficult period of transforming from a dictatorship into a representative democracy.

Now the Tunisian democracy experiment is under stress. At the same time, financial collapse is looming. Should the EU have intervened earlier?

Emergency decrees supplant separation of powers

On 25 July 2021, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied independently exercised his powers and declared a state of emergency. He extended this state of emergency by decree of 24 August 2021 for an indefinite period of time. With strong approval from the electorate, he suspended the separation of powers, dismissed the prime minister, appointed ministers on his own, froze the work of parliament, lifted the immunity of MPs, and, by way of intervention into the public prosecutor’s office, had various parliamentarians and politicians indicted on corruption charges. Moreover, he imposed travel bans.

It’s unclear: restructuring or abolition of representative democracy

Slowly, the outlines of the president’s intention to transform the governmental system of 2014, which is sensitively balanced between parliamentary and presidential power, into a so-called “moderate presidential system” are becoming visible.

How and when this transformation will take place is still completely unclear. The scenarios range from a presidential system with separation of powers and jurisdiction, which the president will shape in consensus with all societal groups, to continuing his authoritarian way of governing, to a system promoted by the president himself, in which the people elect local councils.

These, in turn, send deputies to a national parliament, yet without being able to control the government, which is subordinate to the president. Accordingly, more and more voices from civil society are warning of a drift towards authoritarianism.

An economy in crisis, corruption, a state deficit, and the corona pandemic

The political crisis in Tunisia is taking place against a backdrop of massive economic, financial, social, and health problems. The negative consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have alarmingly intensified the structural challenges. The state deficit is huge. The debt ratio is projected at around 91.2% of GDP in 2021. The social security funds and state-owned enterprises are operating in deficit.

The revenues of entire economic sectors such as tourism are falling. The GDP is collapsing by at least 8%. Unemployment is rising to 22% in the formal sector and by around 50% in the informal sector. Corruption is rampant and illegal migration to Italy is on the rise. In 2020, 13,000 people left the country, five times more than in 2019, and by the end of August 2021, 11,300 people had already emigrated.

Additionally, as recently as July, the corona pandemic hit Tunisia so hard that hundreds of people died, and hospitals could no longer accommodate those in need. Fortunately, since August, the EU and 13 member states have supplied vaccines and materials to hospitals. Romania has even sent a team of experts. The hospitals, however, continue to need further continuous technical and human support.

Now Europeans worry that Europe’s extensive and intensive involvement in Tunisia, adding up to around €10 bn in official European development assistance alone since the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 (the US €1,2 bn in comparison), has not produced any sustainable results in terms of promoting democracy, a market economy, and good governance.

EU and Tunisia: strong interdependence but little influence?

The degree of interdependence between the European Union and Tunisia has grown substantially over the past ten years. The EU is responsible for 50% of Tunisia’s imports and 70% of its exports. The EU is by far the largest donor in all development aid programs in all project lines within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and through direct budget support. European engagement is also driven by the desire to help the birthplace of the Arab Revolution through the difficult period of transforming from a dictatorship to a representative democracy.

Has the EU exerted too little influence to support the fragile democracy? Even the constitutional court, so important for democracy and the separation of powers to function, has not yet been established despite constant European urging. The EU has been reluctant to impose conditionality:

Brussels and important member states have been far too lenient in dealing with many decision-makers’ unwillingness to reform (the stagnant outflow of funds for projects, as well as the slow and lackluster governance of Tunisian institutions) for fear conditionality could increase the fragility of the only Arab democracy, and concerned that it could put the EU at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Gulf States, Egypt, and Turkey.

Among Tunisian decision-makers, a mentality of receiving easy support has stealthily held sway, slackening the will to reform– many sat back and relaxed on the “democracy bonus.” Managers of European projects increasingly report that Tunisia did not have a discussion deficit but a decision-making and implementation deficit.

Implementing important laws has not progressed due to the bickering of parties in parliament, in the depths of the ballooning administration, and by blocking by important associations. Disappointment with the lack of prosperity despite democracy and the government’s inadequate pandemic management increased the electorate’s disenchantment with parliament and the parties and has now resulted in the strong endorsement of President Kais Saied’s authoritarian measures.

What can the EU do? Solidarity with the Tunisians!

In this climate, it is difficult for the EU, as it did in its declaration of 27 July 2021, to demand that the president reinstate parliament when he argues that he knows the people are backing his decisions and parliament and the parties are to blame for the unfortunate situation.

The EU is treading a fine line as many Tunisians perceive demands by the EU as patronizing interference from outside. The president is still ignoring demands from Europe for a roadmap, the appointment of a prime minister, the involvement of parties, associations, and NGOs, as well references to the urgent need for negotiations with the IMF.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Representative, who is visiting Tunisia this week, faces a delicate diplomatic mission. Of course, the EU should not slacken in its efforts to support democratic development in Tunisia and, in turn, to demand the corresponding reforms. However, in the current critical situation, solidarity is what is first and foremost asked for from the Europeans.

Teaser: Next week, in our second blog post, Christian Hanelt will analyze what Josep Borrell achieved in Tunis and offer some suggestions on how the EU can best support the young Democracy in Tunisia.