Tunisia and the European Union (EU) are on a path toward achieving greater bilateral cooperation and economic integration. But the EU-Tunisia Privileged Partnership that was agreed upon on Monday, a cornerstone of future economic cooperation, has already drawn criticism from some Tunisians.
The Privileged Partnership is essentially a roadmap for Tunisian and EU delegates as they begin the process of negotiating trade agreements, an open skies scheme, and easier mobility between Europe and Tunisia for students and migrant workers.
While businessmen and technocrats largely favor the joint EU-Tunisian agreement, there are three main reasons why opposition to it has arisen, says Hassen Zargouni, CEO of Sigma Conseil.
“Why should Tunisia look to Europe?” some ask, preferring an orientation toward Asia, especially in light of the current Eurozone crisis.
Others charge that the interim government does not have the right to make such long-term, binding commitments, as the country is still in the midst of its democratic transition.
Finally, arrangements like the Privileged Partnership are a lightning rod for criticism by those fearful of the consequences if Tunisia opens up its economy.
On the same day that the agreement was made in Brussels, youth from the Popular Front, a left-wing political coalition, gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s Office to denounce the decision.
Jilani el-Hammami is a leader of the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party that forms part of the Popular front. According to him, the Privileged Partnership “endangers the Tunisian economy.”
“We should focus on developing our human resources and exploiting our natural resources on our own,” said el-Hammami. “We don’t need to rely on others.”
Tunisia’s agricultural sector is likely to be affected by increased bilateral trade under the joint Privileged Partnership, and el-Hammami fears that it may be for the worst.
Local farmers will face competition from European agricultural products that are already heavily subsidized, putting them at risk of going out of business, he said.
Such concerns may not be unwarranted. “The agricultural sector… in terms of industrialization is very late,” said Zargouni. “We need time to restructure this sector.”
But the Privileged Partnership may also provide an opportunity for development. Zargouni looks back to 1995 when Tunisia and
the EU agreed upon a similar, though more limited, partnership in the area of industry. The EU furnished Tunisia with technical assistance to improve output in certain industries.
“It was a success,” remarked Zargouni, pointing to the increase in industrial exports during the subsequent period.
The Privileged Partnership may also turn out to be a “win-win situation” for both Tunisia and the EU in certain respects, argues Yassine Brahim, former minister of transport and a member of Al-Joumhouri party.
As Europe looks to wean its energy consumption from fossil fuels and nuclear power, Tunisia’s abundant source of solar power in the southern Saharan region has increasing appeal, says Brahim.
Already Tunisian investors have teamed up with British solar power plant developer NurEnergie in a venture that they hope will be the first to export solar energy from Tunisia to Italy through underwater cables by 2016. But the regulatory framework for energy exports remains unclear and will have to be addressed by EU and Tunisian delegates in the future as per Monday’s agreement for enhanced trade relations.
Migration policy serves as another area in which both sides can stand to benefit as negotiators discuss facilitating work and student permits for Tunisians. Not only do more opportunities for Tunisian migrant workers to find temporary employment in the EU act as a valve for local unemployment pressures, but they can also alleviate an aging European labor force, said Brahim.
While Zargouni and el-Hammami disagree on the outcome of the Privileged Partnership accord, they both would have preferred that a national discussion had preceded Monday’s agreement.
“The government didn’t consult the opinion of the country,” lamented el-Hammami. “It lacks a strategy. No studies preceded the decision.”
Civil society could have been engaged by the government in conveying the potential benefits of the Privileged Partnership with the EU, added Zargouni. “Civil society is the buffer between politicians and the people… and is to convince them [the people] that this is a good idea.”
Amira Masrour contributed reporting