Europe and Tunisia: After complicity, complacency

Tunisians see Europe as complicit with the old regime of President Ben Ali, and were disappointed by the slow reaction of European leaders to their revolution. But they are willing to forgive, if their neighbours to the north makes amends by offering prompt and generous help as they rebuild their country.

Senior Policy Fellow

Tunisians are, it seems, a forgiving lot. The European visitor is left in no doubt that they see Europe as having been essentially complicit with the old Ben Ali regime. And they are aggrieved that, as the drama of their revolution unfolded, it took European leaders so long to come down off the fence and express unequivocal support for those demanding change. But they are still ready to hope that, in due course, Europeans will come across with the sort of help they know they need if they are to consolidate and make a success of their revolution.

Anyone familiar with the EU’s vaunted ‘neighbourhood policy’ – aid and trade in return for progress on democracy and human rights – must feel at least a little shocked at the evidence of how it has operated in practice. The fact that much of the state was sold off in recent years by the old tyrant to family and friends was no secret. Nor was the muzzling of the media, the suppression of civil society, the omnipresence of the internal security apparatus. Yet Ben Ali’s Tunisia, with its relatively open business environment, was treated as a star pupil, and rewarded with the prospect of privileged access to European markets. Lofty ‘action plans’ set out what Europe would do (mainly provide money – we did), and what the regime would do in return (loosen up – it didn’t): and no linkage was made between the two. The famous ‘conditionality’ of EU assistance was simply, in the words of one Tunisian activist, a ‘façade’.

What went wrong? It is to be hoped that there is enough shame felt in Brussels for this question to get proper attention, and a considered answer. But two factors are readily apparent:

— on the European side, the ‘neighbourhood policy’ has been treated essentially as a technical matter, run by the Commission. Give civil servants budgets to spend and projects to deliver, and they will do so. In Tunis – like everywhere else in the world – the European mission’s brief was to run programmes, not to do politics or diplomacy. For Ben Ali and his cronies, it was like taking candy off kids.

— such efforts as ‘Brussels’ did make to pressure the regime to behave better were routinely undercut by the member states – notably France, but also Italy, and Spain. This should not surprise: these were the states with the biggest business interests to protect, and with the biggest stake in the ‘stability’ that could keep illegal migration in check. The pattern is familiar elsewhere: behaviour becomes more principled the less you stand to lose. So the point is less to criticise specific member states that to point out that as long as most EU members are content to ‘upload’ their consciences to the European level, and then continue to operate their national diplomacy on the basis of realpolitik, then European talk of a ‘values-based’ foreign policy will be largely hypocritical.

Now, in Tunisia, at least Europe has the chance to make amends, by offering prompt and generous help. Unless whatever new government emerges can show real benefits to an economically-distressed population, there will be a good chance that the revolution will be re-appropriated by those who did well under Ben Ali. And revolutions are expensive: the interim government puts the cost to GNP at 5 to 8 billion euros. So little wonder that, when the EU’s High Representative at last came to Tunis, one month after the fall of the regime, and brought with her the offer of 17 million (sic – the Tunisians weren’t sure they had heard that right, either) 17 million euros of extra help, the limits of Tunisian tolerance were reached. ‘Ridiculous’, snapped Minister Chelbi; ‘Europe has shown that it has not realised the magnitude of the historic event that has taken place in the southern Mediterranean’.

Tunisia is a small place, of little strategic importance. But its brave people have done Europeans a huge favour, by giving them the chance to accommodate both their consciences and their interests in getting behind the new order. How sad if Europe persists in replacing complicity with complacency.

A version of this article appeared in The European Voice

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow