by Anna Violante


The 16 July memorandum between the European Commission and Tunisia has ignited a firestorm of controversy in Europe and may never be implemented. After months of bilateral talks between Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Tunisian President Kais Saied, an agreement was reached whereby Europe would help Tunisia out of a terrible economic crisis in exchange for a halt to the massive immigration of sub-Saharan people to Italian shores. The inhumane treatment of migrants in Tunisia led to protests by NGOs the same day the deal was signed, followed by a heated debate in the European Parliament. Socialist and Green MEPs condemned the memorandum in the strongest terms against the Commission. The protests were formalised in a letter sent on 7 September by the Commission’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, to the Commissioner for Neighbouring Countries, Olivér Várhelyi. In it, the High Representative recalled that EU member states had already expressed ‘incomprehension’ and that the agreement could not be applied until Tunisia demonstrated that it respected human rights.


How this could be possible is open to debate. “The Commission has much less power than a national government,” explains Pietro Violante, a researcher at Bocconi University’s law school. “Unlike in other areas, such as trade within the Union, in international treaties the memorandum is the formula the Commission can use to make deals with foreign countries. Theoretically, it is only a proposal, but if there is no objection, it can be considered final and applied. Individual member states and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs can oppose it. This is what happened with Borrell’s block on the EU-Tunisia deal.


It will be hard to find a way out of Europe’s controversies over immigration, given the very different policies of individual countries. For his part, Tunisian President Kaïs Saied, contrary to what Giorgia Meloni had hoped and somehow expected, not receiving any money and feeling under the microscope of the EU, forced thousands of migrants to sail to Sicily and refused a visit by a European delegation to assess the current political situation in the country. The Italian island of Lampedusa, with a population of just 7,000, was literally invaded by the arrival of more than 10,000 migrants in just ten days. Soon after, Italian Prime Minister Meloni and European Commission President von der Leyen travelled together to Lampedusa, where they launched a new ten-point agreement, which apparently won the approval of the Tunisian foreign minister yesterday. Under the new deal, Tunisia will receive 127 million euros in the next few days, half of which will be used to reduce the number of migrants heading for Italian shores. It’s hard to say whether this will be put into practice, because the European rules haven’t changed.


But once again the Commission President is acting as if she has the power to make decisions on her own. This happens “because every official has a tendency to assert his power”. Pietro Violante continues: “She probably wants to show that under her presidency a problem as urgent as African immigration has been solved.  The Treaty on European Union (TEU) lists the powers of each institution: Article 15 defines the powers of the Council and Article 17 those of the Commission. Both have powers of international representation, and that is the source of the confusion”. Von der Leyen can make a deal, but it’s enough for one member of the Council to oppose it and the deal is suspended pending discussion in the Council, where all the heads of government sit. “There is no single institution that represents the EU abroad, because each of them has the power to challenge the decision of the other. Finally, the High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs (Article 18), now Borrell, has the additional power to appeal to the Court of Justice on the grounds that the Commission has applied a conflict of powers”. Violante concludes. This could be the case with von der Leyen if she took the initiative to assure Saied he will get the money without the approval of the Council.


The European Union is in the midst of a deep crisis of identity and purpose over the issue of immigration, with the growing power of far-right parties calling for harsh policies, even when they violate international law and human rights. The fight goes on inside and outside Brussels. So much so that Josep Borrell said yesterday in a public speech: “Migration could be a disintegrating force for the European Union because of the deep cultural differences between European countries and their long-term inability to reach a common policy”.
On the cover photo, clandestine migrant boat landing at Lampedusa harbour © photofilippo66/