Tunisia, the North African country that was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, faces severe political and economic problems. Under the leadership of authoritarian President Kais Saied, the country is struggling with high levels of corruption and a collapsing economy. In recent months, events in the country have become increasingly tense, and dissatisfied citizens started to leave the country. The worsening political and economic situation is thus causing wrinkles on the foreheads of many European leaders. A new wave of refugees is expected, and the European mainland may be the new home for many Tunisians. Southern Europe and specifically Italy, which is closest to the Tunisian shores, are most concerned about the influx of migrants.
Although Tunisia is the only country on the African continent where the democratic revolution was successful in 2011, the country has not been able to cope with persistent economic problems. The Tunisian people began to lose confidence in the young democratic institutions but also in any political efforts that tried to save the unstable economy. In October 2019, Tunisians elected populist leader Kais Saied in the hope that he would end corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and, most importantly, reform the economy. Nevertheless, the opposite turned out to be true. Since taking office, Saied has limited the powers of parliament, taken away the power of the judiciary and recently cracked down on the opposition. After the coup in 2021, the president gained absolute power. His repressive stance against all forms of opposition has caused journalists and politicians who have criticised Saied to be detained or imprisoned. Moreover, the Tunisian leader is known for using opposition representatives as scapegoats to divert attention from the real problems in the country. For the same reasons, he recently attacked sub-Saharan African migrants arriving in Tunisia. According to Saied, migrants are part of a conspiracy to change the demographic distribution of the country and are also responsible for all its problems.
However, the Tunisian president says his goal is to rid the country of chaos. However, the civil society in the country does not want any changes in the political functioning of the country and mainly expects Saied to restart the economy. In 2021, the Tunisian economy was on the verge of collapse. Poverty and unemployment were on the rise, and high inflation and pervasive corruption ruled the country. Even after two years, Saied’s regime did not manage to stabilise the situation. In recent months, Tunisians have been affected by rising food prices but also by the lack of staple foods such as rice, sugar, and vegetable oil; gas stations report fuel shortage problems. Inflation in the country is running at 9.1%, the highest in three decades, and unemployment is at a record 18%. Last October, Tunisia entered into a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a loan of USD 1.9 billion. However, the Tunisian president eventually decided not to sign the agreement, arguing that ‘foreign dictates’ could drive the country into even greater poverty. The cancellation of the agreement has alarmed European leaders and international creditors, who predict the country’s bankruptcy.
There are legitimate fears that political, social and, above all, economic discontent in the country could significantly impact the southern coast of Europe and, specifically, Italy, which will face a new wave of migrants. At the initiative of Rome, the foreign ministers of the countries of the European Union, therefore, met in March to discuss the critical situation. “What is happening in Tunisia has an immediate impact on Europe, not only because we are facing a greater influx of migrants, but because it is creating greater instability and insecurity in the whole region. For us, it is essential to prevent the economic and social collapse of the country and to support the people of Tunisia,” explained Josep Borrell, a high representative of the European Union. Figures from March this year show that Italy has already received 20 046 migrants this year. According to unofficial UN figures, up to 12 000 were expected to arrive from Tunisia. This is a huge increase compared with last year’s statistics, which put the number at 1 300. If the situation does not calm down, it could surpass the historic high of 2016, when 181 436 African refugees arrived on the European mainland.
It is clear that it is in the interest of the EU to prevent a new wave of migration from Tunisia at all costs. Current developments indicate that Brussels and Rome will continue to avoid criticism of the authoritarian government of President Saied and will instead look for a way to help the Tunisian economy and, at the same time, deepen mutual cooperation in the field of illegal migration prevention. Italy will try to maintain a friendly relationship with the problematic Tunisian leader also for purely economic reasons, as the country located on the Apennine Peninsula became Tunisia’s number one trading partner last year.
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