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  • Writer's pictureDahlia Foundation

The EU’s extractive trade policies in Tunisia contribute to migration

Since the start of the year, the number of people fleeing North Africa by boat to the European Union has increased significantly. Even though some of them are people on the move from sub-Saharan Africa, using countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as transit points, many are locals who can no longer make a living in their own country.

The EU has scrambled to block more people from crossing the Mediterranean by intensifying its surveillance and militarisation of its southern sea borders. But it has also reached out to regional governments to get their help in stemming migration.

In the case of Tunisia, the EU and Tunisian President Kaïs Saied signed a deal called the “Comprehensive Partnership Package”. In return for stopping the flow of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, Tunis is to get 255 million euros ($269m) for equipment, training and financial support. It could also receive a further 900 million euros ($953m) should it reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund for structural economic reforms, including controversial cuts to its food subsidy programme.

In terms of the trade component of the deal, the memorandum of understanding outlines, inter alia, plans for investments in agriculture, green energy and digital transition. While it remains to be seen how this memorandum will further take shape, it can be read as a continuation of the EU’s trade policies towards its southern neighbour which have been criticised for systematically disadvantaging Tunisian small and medium enterprises.

Against this backdrop, it appears unlikely that the migration deal will improve the situation for Tunisians, especially those from the rural areas who are trying to emigrate from the country en masse. In fact, the EU’s past and present trade policies towards Tunisia are much to blame for the misery of small-scale farmers and agricultural workers.

While EU companies have flooded the Tunisian market with EU-made products, Tunisian farmers have struggled to compete with their EU counterparts, not least due to the ways in which the EU continues to protect its domestic agricultural sector.

Sometimes EU protectionism takes the form of frustratingly simple things such as the fact that periods during which Tunisian products are granted privileged access to the EU market under a customs quota arrangement do not synch up with their production cycle in Tunisia. For example, in the case of watermelons, the main growing season is between June and September, yet the EU only grants duty-free imports between November and May.

The unequal economic exchange in agricultural trade relations between Tunisia and the EU is also apparent in the trade in olive oil, one of Tunisia’s top exports.

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