Respect for human rights will be at the heart of the EU’s controversial new ‘cash for migrant’ control deal with Tunisia, the European Commission insisted on Tuesday (12 September).
Speaking in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, EU Neighbourhood Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi told MEPs that “respect for human rights and democratic principles is enshrined in the EU-Tunisia Association Agreement, which is the overarching legal framework for the bilateral relations”.
“In addition, the objective is to hold the EU-Tunisia Association Council by the end of the year to tackle many aspects of the bilateral partnership, including the situation of human rights and fundamental values,” he added.
The €785 million agreement between Brussels and Tunis was brokered by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen together with Dutch and Italian premiers Mark Rutte and Giorgia Meloni.
Under the deal, the will EU provide financial support for Tunisia’s economy and projects for underwater fibre-optic and electricity cables between the EU and North Africa, in exchange for cooperation on migration control.
However, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has become increasingly authoritarian since suspending parliament, sacking the government and governing by decree in July 2021. A new constitution was introduced this year and many high-profile opposition leaders and civil society activists have been arrested and charged with sedition in recent months.
Saied has also been accused of making racially charged remarks about migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, while the Tunisian government has also admitted to pushing groups of migrants to the desert border regions with Algeria and Libya.
Human rights concerns
Prior to the summer break, a cross-party group of EU lawmakers accused the European Commission of ignoring “grave violations” of human rights in its cash-for-migrant-control agreement with Tunisia.
In an open letter to von der Leyen, the MEPs complained that the EU-Tunisia deal “fails to address core human rights concerns observed in Tunisia”.
Italian centre-left MEP Brando Benifei dismissed the agreement as “one of many useless attempts to externalise control of European borders with big risks for human rights”.
“Tomorrow at this very spot, President von der Leyen will claim in strong words that she fiercely defends democracy against autocracy,” said Green deputy Tineke Strik, referring to von der Leyen’s annual State of the Union address on Wednesday. “But at the same time, she proudly presents dirty deals with a ruthless dictator.”
Swedish Left MEP Malin Bjork warned that “Tunisia is not safe for its own citizens, let alone for people seeking safety from prosecution elsewhere”.
“Paying authoritarian regimes to stop people coming to Europe is not the way forward, but it seems the model the European Commission wants to adopt,” Bjork continued.
MEPs slam EU over 'grave' human rights abuses following Tunisia migrant deal
EU lawmakers have accused the European Commission of ignoring ‘grave violations’ of human rights in its ‘cash for migrant control’ agreement with Tunisia in a letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen published on Thursday (27 July).
However, the Tunisia pact has the support of national leaders across the EU and, most likely, a majority in the European Parliament, where the two largest political groups, the centre-right European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats, indicate that most of their members support the deal.
EU leaders confirmed at a summit in June that they want the agreement with Tunisia to serve as a model for similar arrangements with other North African states.
“There can be no doubt that the current trends make it essential to step up cooperation with our partners across North Africa, in particular with Tunisia,” said Várhelyi.
He also pointed to statistics showing that almost 24,000 interceptions have been made by the coastguard of Tunisia in the southern Mediterranean Sea this year, compared to only 9,376 in 2022.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald/Zoran Radosavjevic]
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