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Tunisia: Political Deadlock


Democracy, peace, safety and stability: These are key EU values. But they are not so apparent in one of the EU’s neighbouring countries, Tunisia.


Two years after holding elections, Tunisia is still struggling with the aftermath of its revolution. No constitution exists and the situation has been described as political “deadlock.”

Adrianus Koetsenruijter served as EU Ambassador to Tunisia from 2008 to 2012. He spoke to me about the position and interests of the EU in the country in which the Arab Spring began. 


When you compare Tunisia now with when you left in 2012, how much has the situation changed?
It has certainly not improved; the situation has not changed much. The constitution has not been approved and the Tunisian parliament does not gather as a whole anymore. The current government will have to resign if it is to get the opposition back to the table to discuss the constitution. So, you could say that Tunisia is in deadlock. They do intend to make progress, but you cannot really tell when this will happen. Besides, there have been two political assassinations during the last couple of months. This might seem nothing compared to Egypt, but for a country like Tunisia, it is, in fact, rather extraordinary.


Some people have proposed a planned interim ‘business’ government, which would involve economists, businessmen and members of the central bank leading the country up until the next elections. Do you think that this might represent a way of ending the deadlock?
The government basically remains political; the people who make up this government are usually former secretaries of state or members of the opposition. So, actually you can't really speak of a business government. And even if they were businessmen, they would not necessarily be any better. Ennahda [the government party] should allow others to participate in the interim government, but it does not seem willing to take this step yet. It is a struggle for power.  


How might this situation be resolved? Is international support needed?
Currently, international support in general is limited. Saudi-Arabia is pushing for a radical version of Islam but wants a secular system at the same time. Other support is limited to just having a presence in the country. Europe cannot do much more than offer its knowledge of democracy, commerce and so on. We could be more flexible when it comes to trade and mobility, but that's just not the attitude member states have at the moment. This is reality: a majority of European citizens are hesitant about getting involved.


Would you say that the situation in Tunisia and in its neighbour, Libya, is a European problem?
Yes, it is, because it’s right at our border. The refugee problem is a heavy burden for Sicily and Malta. Malta would be completely lost if it was not part of the EU: It would be impossible for them to cope with the enormous amount of refugees. Besides, there are economical interests in Libya too: There is a lot of gas and oil in the country. Tunisia is quite different: they do not have anything to offer other than tourism and olive oil. For our own security it is important to have good relations with both countries because otherwise all money spent on our own defence is wasted money.


The European Parliament recently approved Eurosur, a new border surveillance system. It was presented as being more humane, as it can help to save the lives of migrants. Is this really the case?
No it is not. We are not offering shelter to migrants with this system. Instead, it looks for ways to avoid any victims. It is all about preventing them from trying to come to Europe. The easiest way of addressing this problem would be to come to an agreement with national governments, but that is obviously not possible at the moment. Immigrants know that they are taking a risk by trying to cross the sea to Europe. The stories about the Mediterranean graveyard are known even in villages deep down in Mali. But though these events are dramatic, they are currently unpreventable.


What can the EU delegation to Tunisia do?
First and foremost, the delegation is there to keep the political dialogue going. Additionally, they keep in close contact with all the EU member states that are present in Tunisia. Also, the EU is setting up many regional projects - which was happening before the Arab Spring too - in the field of health and trade.


What did the Tunisians that you met think about the EU?
When I lived there, I travelled around quite a lot to explain the work of the EU to citizens. I got a lot of criticism, but whenever I explained to them exactly what we do, and that the EU talks to both the government and the opposition, we got more respect. They had little knowledge about the EU; citizens often thought that the EU was only about France or Italy. And sometimes we still get criticized for the bad economic situation and the small amount of support the EU provides to Tunisia.    


Is this criticism justified?
In part, it is. To be honest, we cannot do much. We cannot send billions of Euros to a country like Tunisia. We are simply not able to do so and we would not even have done this in the prosperous nineties. I reckon that the expectations of our support are too high in Europe as well. You need to take into account that what we are criticised for is not actually the EU’s policy. We act as the people of the member states want us to: Europe is nothing but what the member states decide.


So unfamiliarity with EU policy also plays an important part in how the EU is perceived?
It does. Commissioner Catherine Ashton is well known to many countries, but she does not explain much to the EU itself. She should tell us Europeans more about what she does. I notice that the EEAS is becoming more orientated on Europe than before, when I was working on Development. There used to be much more attention on third world countries. Now, it is mainly about what is important to us.


Would you like to see that changed?
No, this is actually a very logical development. And there is some mutual interest too: they have to find their own way.


Cynthia is an intern in the Press Unit at the European Parliament.


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