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Another awkward immigration dilemma for the EU

BY NURMASH TOK


Ursula Von der Leyen, the Chair of the European Commission, unveiled a plan to loan Tunisia more than a billion euros in aid. This loan is divided into three critical parts: 900 million for macro-financial assistance, 150 million to support the IMF’s reform agenda, and an additional 105 million for border management. All these components share a common objective: to address the issue of illegal immigration across the Mediterranean Sea.


This situation raises a question: is the EU abandoning its fundamental roots as a bastion of democratic and liberal principles and its appeal to common humanity? Or is it merely attempting to regulate the flow of immigration through unsafe routes, often controlled by criminal gangs involved in people smuggling?


In recent years, the economic and political situations in Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa have been dire. Ravaged by relentless conflict, post-COVID shortages, and cost of living crises, people have been forced to seek refuge in safer countries. The EU, often reached via Tunisia and the Mediterranean, has become the ideal destination for these refugees and immigrants.


As a result, there has been a staggering 292% increase in attempted crossings from Tunisia's border, revealing two key issues: one practical and the other political.


Firstly, the surge in attempted crossings along unsafe routes to the EU has resulted in numerous deaths. In April alone, 210 people washed up on the shoreline. Furthermore, asylum seekers often face intolerance in countries unprepared for the sudden influx of foreigners.


Secondly, Tunisia's President Kais Saied, motivated by nationalistic attitudes, has shown little leniency towards refugees. He has firmly stated that he would not turn his country into the EU’s “border guard” and would not offer asylum to refugees, to prevent diluting his nation’s population. This stance has led to the mistreatment of immigrants, who are often detained by the police and expelled from the country. Meanwhile, Italy’s far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni shares a similar discontent with the increasing volumes of immigration, further spurring the EU's need for action.


The proposed loan from the EU aims to stabilise the situation by funding Tunisian efforts to control its border and bolster its economy, thereby alleviating pressure from other issues within the country.

While the EU’s immediate goal should be to prevent the deaths of people forced to flee conditions beyond their control, such as poverty and conflict, the bloc's approach to handling the issue could have been more aligned with its fundamental values.


Tunisia has been a democratic success story in terms of institutional design and speed of reform since the start of the previous decade. However, its economy, party-system and judiciary have lagged behind. Hence, it was no surprise that in a time of crisis, such as the pandemic, we have witnessed democratic backsliding, with President Kais Saied consolidating emergency powers throughout 2021 and 2022. Things such as taking over the High Judicial Council, the Elections Council, and editing the constitution highlight the increasing authoritarian tendency of his leadership.


Regardless of the EU’s motivations, the socio-political situation in Tunisia, where an increasingly authoritarian leader has undermined and possibly reversed some of the country’s progressive democratic reforms, cannot be overlooked. By propping up the economy and the current rule of Tunisia, the EU risks legitimising an anti-democratic form of governance and compromising the consistency of its own foreign policy.


Giorgia Meloni’s motivations, primarily focused on halting immigration to Italy, are not aligned with the EU's. This divergence sets a negative precedent for the European bloc, as it could be interpreted as weakening its stance on immigration and common humanity.

Such issues could complicate the EU's dealings with other external and even internal affairs. For example, supporting an anti-democratic regime could reduce the pressure for states to democratise in order to establish relations with the bloc. How would Hungary or Poland, both increasingly authoritarian and with tight controls on immigration, respond? On the other hand, if the EU is supposed to sanction and outright oppose leadership that is anti-democratic, how can it remain consistent and objective if it props up an authoritarian regime with no conditionality or advocacy of common values?


Long-term solutions such as strengthening domestic asylum and immigration systems, promoting legal migration channels, and addressing root causes would arguably have more far-reaching effects and be less politically contested in the western world. The EU should consider these if it is to maintain its status as a bastion of democracy and liberal prosperity. The bloc must resist the temptation to seek easy, short-term responses to significant problems of international relations and global justice. Instead, it should remember its core values and lead the way in these challenging times.


Image: Flickr/European Parliament


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