Europe’s missed opportunity in Tunisia

Europe’s missed opportunity in Tunisia

Since initial exuberance about the democratization of Tunisia, Europe’s stance on has demonstrably shifted. (Reuters/File Photo)
Since initial exuberance about the democratization of Tunisia, Europe’s stance on has demonstrably shifted. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Once hailed as the Arab Spring’s lone democratic success story, Tunisia is now fully in the grip of regression, with an alarming crackdown on migrants, civil society groups, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and the political opposition.
This narrative is incomplete, however, without considering the role of the EU in all this. Its engagement has subtly transitioned from being a champion of democratic values to striking transactional bargains that have, inadvertently or otherwise, come to undermine its very ideals during Tunisia’s cycle of repression.
Since the initial exuberance about the democratization of Tunisia in the aftermath of the events of 2011, Europe’s stance on the country has demonstrably shifted. At first, the EU greeted the democratic transition with enthusiasm and support, aligning itself with the nation’s nascent aspirations for freedom and a rules-based civil society. It represented a beacon of democratic progress in the region.
However, as Tunisia’s economic struggles, fluctuating political landscape, and security dilemmas began to intersect with the challenges Europe itself faced, particularly the surge in irregular migration, the EU’s priorities visibly morphed.
The humanitarian and liberal rhetoric took a back seat and Europe’s foreign policy paradigm transitioned toward a more practical, realpolitik approach wherein migration control, counterterrorism, and energy security began to dictate the terms of the relationship with greater assertiveness.
This utilitarian shift has come into sharp focus in recent months, given the manner in which the EU and its member states have engaged with the current regime. In the thick of domestic and regional turbulence, demonstrated by the regime’s puzzling stewardship, the EU has found itself entangled in a frustrating paradox.
On one hand, its policymaking and external engagements are bound by foundational principles including the promotion of human rights, support for democracy, and the shoring up of human security in challenging contexts overseas.
On the other, it is compelled to take action to secure its borders by tacitly endorsing, or at least turning a blind eye to, Tunisia’s contentious migrant-expulsion policies and reported alliances with smuggling networks, thereby raising concerns about complicity in human rights abuses. This dichotomy marks a transactional turn in policy-setting, a move that already has been construed as the bloc actively undermining its own fundamental ethos.
Consequently, the strategic calculus appears to have overridden the EU’s normative considerations. Even as Europe continues to claim to be a champion of democracy and human rights, those values are compromised by the exigencies arising from Tunisia’s complex sociopolitical milieu and Europe’s own self-interest.
Brussels’ engagement with a Tunisia enmeshed in internal strife, while the bloc deals with external pressures from migrant flows caused by regional instability, is now a matter of pragmatism versus principle. It is a conundrum that represents a stern test for the EU’s resolve in upholding its foundational values while addressing contemporary geopolitical realities.
This veneer of pragmatism belies an unsettling erosion of Europe’s moral high ground. Once predicated on the nurturing of fledgling political institutions, the European policy on Tunisia has been distilled into more limited and myopic areas of focus: curbing migration and securing borders.

The hesitancy of the EU to support Tunisia decisively in times of acute crisis represents a missed opportunity to reinforce its commitment to the nation’s democratic path. 

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Even as the current Tunisian regime sweeps up migrants and vocal critics alike, casting them into the bleak uncertainty of detention, Europe appears at best helpless, at worst complicit. This discreet stance on political repression in Tunisia — exemplified by the harsh response from the current regime to civil society organizations, with verifiable reports of a systematic crackdown including raids, intimidation, and the dissolution of prominent nongovernmental organizations — underscores a disheartening recalibration.
The EU’s minimal responses to the abuses of power engender a perception of tacit approval, which perhaps serves the broader objective of staunching flows of migrants to European shores, regardless of the moral cost attached to such a consequential silence.
When cornered on the issue, Europe’s leaders continue to parrot grand-sounding declarations about human rights and freedom of expression, but consistently fail to account for how transactional rhetoric undercuts those ideals and condones the Tunisian regime’s ever-tightening grip.
Clearly, the currency of human dignity finds little stock in the economics of Europe’s engagement with Tunisia, as critical judgments on the denial of personal liberties yield to short-sighted migration pacts. The seemingly strategic EU silence on the jailing of outspoken critics and the detention of political opponents in Tunisia paints a picture of a bloc less enthralled by the prospects of democratization than by the specters of instability and refugee flows.
Implicit within the EU’s apparent compliance with Tunisia’s undemocratic trajectory is the assumption that Europe can navigate the results of partnering with an illiberal regime without jeopardizing its own values and security interests. Such a bargain, however, flirts dangerously with the notion that the line that separates strategic interests and fundamental values can be blurred without consequence.
Europe’s silence suggests a belief that it can compartmentalize its relations, addressing shared concerns such as migration while disregarding internal repression. Such a stance not only undermines the transformative promise once heralded by the EU in the wake of the Arab Spring but also signals to other nations that the European commitment to democracy is negotiable in the face of pressing strategic concerns.
The reality is stark. Once upon a time, Europe had at its disposal the diplomatic wherewithal to sway Tunisia’s future and steer President Kais Saied away from the shadow of Ben Ali. Financial aid, trade agreements, and diplomatic relations, all of which are powerful tools in the European arsenal, could have been wielded to enforce a reversal, or at least a slackening, of the tightening noose.
However, the prioritization of migration control over democratic values has created a dissonance in EU-Tunisia relations, overshadowing Europe’s once powerful role as a promoter of democracy in its immediate neighborhood.
This strategic misstep is further compounded by the EU’s failure to act decisively against the negative external influences that have induced Tunisia’s retreat from democracy, which contrasts sharply with its more resolute stance on the defense of democracy in its more-immediate neighborhood against external threats.
Moreover, the hesitancy of the EU to decisively support Tunisia in times of acute crisis, as seen in its delayed reaction to the collapse of healthcare in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, represents a missed opportunity to reinforce its influence and commitment to the nation’s democratic path.
Despite the considerable aid and support it has allocated to Tunisia since the Arab Spring, the EU has struggled to adapt its approach in the face of the escalating trend toward authoritarianism in the country.
Instead, European engagement has quietly waned, paving the way for the ruling administration’s unchecked run toward autocracy, all under the pretext of restoring political stability at any cost and stemming a crisis responsible for a resurgence of the Eurosceptic far-right.
For the Tunisians who bravely turned the page in 2011, the difficulties they face now are a painful tragedy and a sobering revelation of how Europe has retreated from its ideals.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell
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