Another Fine Mess

2 November 2023

Another Fine Mess

EU and Tunisia.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Last July, the president of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen signed an agreement with Tunisia to stop illegal migration across the Mediterranean. The deal was initiated by the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and supported by the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.  The agreement, a “memorandum of understanding”, launched a partnership between Tunisia and the EU to combat people-smuggling gangs, strengthen border controls, increase search and rescue patrols and establish migrant resettlement programmes. Tunisia will receive funds of €105 million (plus loans of €900 million) from the EU to finance suitable measures.

Two months later, on 7 September, the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell published an extraordinary letter condemning the deal and attacking Ursula von der Leyen for signing it. He complained that the appropriate legal and constitutional measures had not been taken. “The proper steps of the adoption procedure had not been followed” he wrote. “The participation in the negotiations and the signing ceremony of a limited number of EU heads of government does not make up for the institutional balance between the council and the commission.” He was anxious that it should not set a precedent, insisting that it could not be “considered a valid template for future agreements.”

This was a serious and astonishing slap on the wrist, all the more so for being made in public. But worse was to follow – a veritable slap round the face. Two slaps round the face, in fact. The Tunisian foreign ministry promptly and abruptly cancelled a visit by a group of MEPs from the EU’s foreign affairs committee due a week later. And then, last month, the first €60 million of EU funds were sent to Tunisia – only to be returned six days later with angry complaints that the EU was treating the country like a vassal state. “The treasures of the whole world are not worth a single iota of our sovereignty” declared President Saied of Tunisia. His foreign minister Nabil Ammar went further, with blatant criticism of Europe; “We have not started wars and we have not plunged humanity into world wars as you have done.”

This sorry story raises three interesting points.

The first is that Josep Borrell’s objections were purely legal and constitutional, not moral or ideological. He wasn’t criticising the agreement itself, he was criticising the procedural shortcuts taken in making it. He wasn’t concerned about the dubious merits of striking a deal with Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic government which didn’t put human rights first and foremost. The deal has indeed been criticised for its lack of emphasis on human rights (especially after an episode in August when migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, intercepted as they were about to sail from Tunisia, were allegedly beaten and then dumped without food or water in the desert on the borders with Libya and Algeria where 27 of them died), but mainly by NGOs and charities; Médecins Sans Frontières has said that the agreement will make the EU “directly complicit in the ongoing abuse and deaths of people trapped in the country”.

Second, Mr Borrell was nevertheless making a very important point. There was an astonishing democratic deficit in Ms von der Leyen’s action. How could the unelected President of the unelected Commission sign an agreement with a foreign government without reference to the elected MEPs in the European parliament and with only two of the twenty-seven elected heads of member states on side? It’s as if the speaker of the House of Lords here in the UK signed an agreement with another country, without reference to the elected government or to the House of Commons, and giving away a billion pounds of tax-payers’ money.

And yet, and yet… how else is the EU going to get anything done? How else is Brussels going to swiftly address important and urgent issues? How is it going to take the necessary action to solve desperate problems if it doesn’t break its own rules and short-cut its procedures, given that those rules are so stifling and those procedures are so leaden? (This week produced a good example of how the EU is paralysed by its own constitution, with Hungary and Slovakia able to veto EU financial and military aid to Ukraine). Ursula von der Leyen was only doing what the rest of the EU want her to do; there’s widespread acceptance in the bloc that swift and urgent action must be taken to guard and strengthen its external borders if its lack of internal borders and its freedom of movement aren’t to be fatal weaknesses (a danger illustrated by the recent murder of two Swedish football fans in Brussels by an illegal migrant from Tunisia who’d been bouncing around the Schengen zone as a petty criminal for the last twelve years). It’s more than ironic that a president of the EU – which proudly presents itself as a rules-based organisation and a fountain of democracy – has to break its rules and act undemocratically to do what the rest of the EU wants her to do anyway, but such is the EU’s upside-down constitution, inflexible rules and unrealistic ideals.

Third, yet again the EU has made itself look dysfunctional in the eyes of the rest of the world – tripping over its own feet at home and facing insults and humiliation abroad. This isn’t the first time that Brussels has had a banana-skin moment (see Bother In Brussels, issue 268, 25.02.21; Sofagate, issue 275, 15.04.21; Another Smacking, issue 355, 04.05.23). On 15 April 2021 this column wrote: “Further humiliations will inevitably occur unless the EU parliament and the EU Council take proper steps to remind the Commission that it is not the EU’s government”, prophetic words which have been proved true by this latest fine mess.

Cover page image: flickr / creative commons.
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