28th Sep 2023

EU watchdog launches rights probe into Tunisia agreement

  • European commission von der Leyen (right) with Tunisia's president, Kais Saied (Photo: European Union, 2023)
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Questions are mounting on how the EU intends to safeguard rights in a migrant busting agreement signed over the summer with Tunisia's autocrat government.

"Where fundamental rights are not respected, there cannot be good administration," said Emily O'Reilly, the EU's administrative watchdog, the European Ombudsman, in a letter published on Friday (15 September) and sent to European Commission president von der Leyen.

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O'Reilly has now given the European Commission a 13 December deadline to respond on how it plans to ensure respect for human rights when it comes to issues dealing with border management and migration, as part of its wider agreement with Tunisia.

She also wants to know if the commission carried out a human rights impact assessment ahead of the agreement.

Queried by reporters on Friday if any such assessment had been made in advance, the commission declined to respond. "We will be replying in due course within the deadline to the ombudsman," said a commission spokesperson, when pressed.

The agreement comes with €105m in EU funding to shore up Tunisian land and sea borders. This includes refitting existing and providing the Tunisians with new search and rescue vessels.

Although the money has yet to be distributed, Tunisia's government has been accused of backsliding on democracy as it cracks down sub-Saharan African migrants.

It also refused entry to a delegation of MEPs from the foreign affairs committee, scheduled to meet with Tunisian civil society, trade unions, and opposition leaders.

"This conduct is unprecedented since the democratic revolution in 2011," said the delegation, in a joint statement.

Reports are also emerging that Tunis is preventing aid organisations from distributing emergency help to thousands of migrants in Sfax, a coastal town where many attempt to flee by boat towards Italy.

Despite the reported abuses, the agreement with Tunisia is set to be templated elsewhere in Africa.

European Commission president von der Leyen, in her state of the union, praised it. And her commissioner envoy to the region, Olivér Várhelyi had also defended it.

In a plenary debate earlier this week, he cited a pre-existing EU-Tunisia association agreement as the overarching legal framework for its bilateral relations with the country. It includes obligations on human rights and democracy.

But the agreement, signed by Várhelyi in Tunis over the summer, is a separate and non-binding memorandum of understanding. The move has raised eyebrows from numerous MEPs.

"It has the legal status of a beer coaster," said Dutch liberal MEP, Sophie In't Veld.

Udo Bullmann, the German socialist MEP chair the European Parliament's committee on human rights, also complained.

"Why didn't you attempt to make an agreement within the framework of the existing association agreement with Tunisia?," he had asked Várhelyi.

"In article two, we are bound by trying to protect human rights. Is that a coincidence?," he had asked. Bullmann was left without a response.

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