by Anna Violante
“We are very satisfied…” said Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Sunday 11 June, after talks with Tunisian President Kais Saied. Why her optimism? Said’s rejection of EU aid to help Tunisia recover economically and stem the flow of refugees to Europe was clear. “The solution that some secretly call for is to settle migrants in exchange for money, a solution that is neither humane nor acceptable”, he said.
Despite public statements, the situation is very complex and has been the subject of months of talks between Tunisia and the IMF, Italy and Tunisia, Italy and the IMF and the EU, the EU and Tunisia. For her part, Meloni aims “at stabilising the country’s economic situation and preventing a financial crisis that could trigger further departures from Tunisia towards Europe”, i.e. Italy. As reported by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). Saied is trying to make the most of his agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Together they want to ease the IMF’s demands on Tunisia in exchange for a loan of about $2 billion to save the country from a collapsing economic crisis because the EU has made it clear that its financial support will only be given after the Tunisia-IMF deal is concluded. Both leaders have a strong will and are convinced that their goals can be achieved.
Saied has been trying to reach an agreement with the IMF on this new $2 billion loan, but talks have stalled over his recent categorical veto of some of the IMF’s dictates, in particular the sale of public companies and the abolition of subsidies. The Prime Minister’s rejection of the deal was prompted by union opposition and subsequent riots across the country against the likely austerity measures. While the IMF argues that reducing food subsidies will benefit the country’s economy in the long term by rebalancing the budget and thereby stimulating economic activity, recent studies suggest that it will instead reduce the purchasing power of the poor and middle class. The independent Tunisian pro-democracy NGO Al Bawsala points out that the government should reinstate the former progressive income tax to redistribute wealth from higher to lower income earners. Currently, taxes on higher earners are raised to 35 per cent for those earning 50,000 dinars (about €15,000) or more.
Meloni has been pressing Washington and Brussels for months to unblock financial aid to Tunisia. More than 53,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by boat since January, more than double the number last year, with a sharp increase in boats leaving Tunisia. “The Italian leader is worried that if the North African country’s economy implodes, it could trigger an even bigger wave of people trying to cross the Mediterranean.” The Financial Times recently reckoned. So far, Italy’s far-right prime minister appears to have succeeded in convincing the EU of the urgency of her demands.
During the 11 June visit, the EU offered to “break the EU’s piggy bank”, as the Tunisian newspaper le temps news put it. Von der Leyen spoke of a “strengthened partnership” with Tunisia, including long-term financial aid of up to €900m and additional immediate aid of €150m to face immigration. A total of more than €1 billion, which should give a temporary boost to public finances in a context of economic and financial suffocation. The five-point programme proposed by the EU includes increased investment in Tunisia, particularly in support of the digital sector, investment in Tunisian exports of renewable energy and the expansion of the European Erasmus student exchange programme to Tunisia. And then there is the controversial issue of fighting the “cynical business” of illegal immigration, for which the EU has offered “€100 million this year for border control, search and rescue” of migrants. For his part, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told President Saïed that “the Netherlands will send an economic mission to Tunisia as soon as possible to discuss energy, agriculture, water management and, of course, tourism”, concluding: “All this will take place within a framework of full cooperation and full compliance with human rights.”
For Meloni, this is her second visit to Tunis in less than a week (she also visited on 6 June). “We are very satisfied… We are therefore ready to host an international conference on migration and development in Rome, which we have discussed with President Saied, as a further step in this journey that we have embarked on together, and of course, we also see this work as useful to help Tunisia in its negotiations with the IMF for the conclusion of a framework agreement”. On Monday 12 June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also expressed his support for a review of the IMF’s support plan.
Will Giorgia Meloni succeed in limiting the arrival of Africans on Italian shores? Will Saied succeed in obtaining aid on more favourable terms? If so, they’ll be killing two birds with one stone, at the expense of sub-Saharan asylum seekers, who in Tunisia are the victims of widespread repression and racist attacks, all justified by President Saied.
* Giorgia Meloni, Italian Prime Minister © Vincenzo Izzo/Shutterstock.com