24th Jun 2021

Ashton protects EU interests under new Tunisian government

  • The new foreign minister praised the 'economic revolution' of the previous regime (Photo: US Army Africa)

Upon the visit of Tunisia's new, post-revolutionary foreign minister to Brussels on Wednesday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton managed to ensure commitments from him that Europe's pre-revolutionary interests in the country - economic liberalisation and the prevention of irregular immigration from the continent - are to be maintained despite the change in government.

Ahmed Ounaies, a retired career diplomat, was effusive in his praise of the EU upon his first trip overseas since the revolution, telling reporters Tunisia will maintain a liberal economy.

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"We are moving on. We are going back to the essence of Tunisia - Arabic, Islamic and Mediterranean, but a liberal Tunisia, politically, economically," he said.

"We are building economic and human development with societies that we admire. These European societies are ahead in terms of human history. They have devised the democratic process and structure, which is the best possible system."

Ms Ashton discussed with the minister a package of help with electoral and judicial reform and support for "economic governance".

This involves long-term financial support for already ongoing programmes that work to help open up the economy, in particular those that currently "pose a challenge", according to an EU source: public procurement, legislative frameworks and financial controls.

The commission reports that these programmes are in keeping with "the emphasis on a liberal economic perspective" contained in agreements and negotiations with other countries.

Ms Ashton raised with the minister "the need of political parties to abide by democratic norms."

The topic of immigration was also discussed, notably the possibility of a system that could be put in place to facilitate regularised immigration. France currently has such an agreement with the country, agreed under the previous government, while Italy was in the middle of negotiations ahead of the revolution. Mediterranean EU states have long worked with north African regimes to keep a lid on irregular immigration.

The EU is also to support civil society groups. Although no names have yet been decided, the support will be going to "those key to the transition" - human rights groups, lawyers groups and trade unions.

Ms Ashton did not have to twist any arms however. The foreign minister, a former ambassador to the UN under the old regime, reportedly was "very supportive" of this perspective during his discussion with the EU foreign affairs supremo.

'Huge progress' under Ben Ali

As Ms Ashton nodded along to Mr Ounaies' remarks in French, he delivered a brief, wandering history lesson, but tredding a careful path and pronouncing that while the country had chosen a fresh direction, he appeared to back much of what had gone before and relations with European powers during this period.

Describing the 30-year post-colonial reign of the country's first president, he said: "Education became generalised and we founded a modern state. We went for economic planning. This enabled us to use our scarce resources together with our international friends. These friends were our European partners."

Then, describing the opening up of the economy under the recently ousted regime, he continued to explain how Tunisia had gone through a "revolution, going from a statist economy to a liberal economy. This with the help of the EU. We made huge progress in this regard."

"Then there was an interruption. We were prevented from realising the last revolution, the revolution of democracy, of good governance freedom. We were prevented but we have just done it, we did it less than a month ago. We finished a race that has nothing to do with the revolution, but can be explained by the will to modernise, a will that was there from the beginning and was always there throughout.

"There was a sort of despotic ‘parenthesis'. But now this interval is over."

When Ms Ashton was asked about the ongoing upheaval in Egypt and criticisms from some quarters for waffling over the question of calling for the resignation of the country's leader, President Hosni Mubarak, the Tunisia minister unprompted said they were not in the business of "exporting" their revolution.

"Tunisia has no lessons to teach to maybe the oldest state in Africa, on the African continent. It's civilisation dates back 4000 years," he said. "We do not export politics: we import concepts such as modernity, development, both economic and human."

"We are very good pupils. We learn well."

"To the Egyptian people, I wish them good luck and I wish it to achieve reconciliation with itself."

He added that the issue of embezzlement by former regime officials was being dealt with by the judiciary, "but we are not here to say whether these assets were ill acquired."

"We have no say whether this or that person is guilty or not. That is the responsibility of the judiciary. We have a great many other things to do."

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