The European Union has long been the most influential foreign power in Tunisia. This is partly due to post-colonial ties and geographical proximity, but it is also a matter of choice on Tunisia’s part. The Tunisian Republic’s founding fathers often looked to European models in building their state. And Tunisia’s recent moves towards democracy and liberalism have reinforced this trend, giving the EU cultural influence to match its economic power in Tunisia. Yet a series of misunderstandings and the arrival of new partners may eventually weaken the EU’s influence in the country.

Strong ties

The history of Europe’s role in Tunisia is punctuated by a series of occupations that date back to the Roman Empire and end with the dissolution of the French protectorate in 1956. The European presence in Tunisia extended beyond the military, as multiple European communities settled in the country at various times. This contributed to the creation of an ethnically mixed population. After Tunisia gained independence, many Tunisians moved to France – which is now home to the largest Tunisian diaspora in the world. The second- and third-largest Tunisian diasporas are in Italy and Germany. The Tunisian elite is largely Europhile or otherwise influenced by Europe. Most Tunisians who study abroad do so in Europe. Indeed, the continent remains a kind of El Dorado for many young Tunisians who dream of a better future.

Moreover, Tunisia’s economy is anchored to Europe. The EU is Tunisia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 64 percent of its total trade and receiving 78 percent of its exports. In 1995 Tunisia became the first Mediterranean country to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. European development and financial assistance to Tunisia have increased since the transition began, with the bloc providing €2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance between 2011 and 2017.

During the presidency of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, many Tunisians came to believe that the only obstacle to an even stronger EU-Tunisia relationship was the country’s poor human rights record. When the Arab uprisings began in 2011 – and as Tunisia embarked on its democratic journey – Tunisians’ expectations were high. The EU declared Tunisia a “privileged partner” and began negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the country. Some Tunisians thought that they would soon be able to travel to Europe without a visa. Others even believed that Tunisia could join the EU.

Stumbling blocks

However, in the years since it became a democracy, Tunisia has faced a series of obstacles in its relationship with the EU – each of which has limited the importance of the bloc in the country. There is a mismatch of priorities and expectations between the sides. The DCFTA, which is a major focus of the EU’s engagement with Tunisia, encapsulates some of these problems – as Tunisians believe that it serves European interests and threatens Tunisia’s agricultural and industrial sectors. Tunisians see European countries as protective of their own farming interests and too resistant to migration from outside the EU. While European officials may feel that Tunisia is slow to meet conditions for international assistance – and say so publicly – there is growing opposition within Tunisia to perceived EU diktats. The recent election of Kais Saied as Tunisia’s president may reinforce this perception, as he has made a point of speaking out against foreign interference.

Furthermore, there is a sense among Tunisia’s officials and elite that Europeans view the country through only two lenses: migration and counter-terrorism. Many Tunisians believe that Europeans see them either as potential migrants or future suicide bombers. While most Tunisians continue to see Europe as a friend, they fear that a rise in populist governments could turn the EU – with its economic power and colonial past – into a powerful foe across the Mediterranean. These concerns undermine the EU’s liberal rhetoric and its repeated claims that it supports Tunisia.

Moreover, France and Italy – two of Tunisia’s leading European partners – prefer to have special relationships with Tunisia that largely neglect the EU’s professed reform agenda. For geopolitical and economic reasons, Paris largely deals with Tunis on a bilateral level, creating confusion among Tunisian politicians. It is common for Tunisians to equate the EU with France – and even to see the EU as a vehicle for the country (with all the neo-colonial connotations this perception has). In the recent Tunisian election campaign, several parties accused France of being a neo-colonial power in Tunisia. Meanwhile, Italy – which has considerable investments in Tunisia and is a primary destination for Tunisian migrants – focuses almost entirely on measures to strengthen its bilateral commercial ties with Tunisia and halt Tunisian migration to Europe.

In the meantime, other powers have begun to weaken the EU’s privileged position in Tunisia. The United States named Tunisia as a “Major Non-NATO Ally”, providing the country with a valuable security umbrella. Qatar is pumping money into Tunisia’s central bank. Turkey provides weapons and goods to Tunisia at prices that undercut Europe’s. Saudi Arabia has pledged billions of dollars in financial assistance to Tunisia (although the funds have been slow to arrive). Chinese companies and officials express interest in Tunisia, frequently participating in delegations to the country that propose economic and infrastructure packages. China is funding the construction of Tunisia’s diplomatic academy. And Russia is also trying to develop new ties with Tunisia. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tunisia in January 2019, a few weeks after a round of unproductive DCFTA negotiations, he announced that Russia would offer Tunisia an alternative trade agreement.

What future?

Foreign policy is not a major issue for Tunisia’s new president and parliament, as most Tunisians are focused on domestic concerns. Yet, once the new government is in place, the question of the country’s relationships with the rest of the world – starting with Europe – will come back. The EU has engaged in little activism in Tunisia, and organised no high-level visits to the country, following the recent election. Europeans seem cautious rather than excited about the result of the vote. Tunisia’s other partners will probably exploit this situation to increase their engagement with the country.

Of course, Tunisians will continue to count on the EU in many ways, ensuring that there will still be significant cooperation between the two sides. But the EU will need to rethink its approach to Tunisia if it wants to maintain its current level of influence there. For instance, European policymakers could demonstrate that they understand Tunisian concerns about the DCFTA, ease the process through which Tunisians can acquire an EU visa, and package everything in a special offer that would stress Tunisia’s uniqueness as a peaceful liberal democracy in the EU’s southern neighbourhood.

The EU should not take Tunisia’s European orientation for granted. A dose of post-colonial understanding of the country would benefit European officials in dealing with the country. Europe must unify its message on Tunisia and improve its offer to the country if it wants to prevent Tunisians from increasingly looking to other powers.

Youssef Cherif runs the Columbia Global Centers, Tunis. He is a Tunis-based political analyst, a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network, and a regular contributor to several think-tanks. He has worked with organisations such as the United Nations, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and the Carter Center. He was formerly an expert at the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies. He holds MA in international relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and an MA in classical studies from Columbia University.

A project by the ECFR MENA Programme

Research assistance: Yasmine Zarhloule

Design and development: Objectif.co.uk, Queo.pt, Juan Ruitiña

Editing: Chris Raggett, Adam Harrison

December 2019. ECFR/310. ISBN 978-1-913347-10-9