EU, Tunisia Make Progress on Migration, and Building Economic, Trade Ties

In this photo provided by the Tunisian Presidency, Tunisian President Kais Saied, left, shakes hand with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the presidential palace in Carthage, Tunisia, July 16, 2023.

European leaders and Tunisia's president announced progress Sunday in the building of hoped-for closer economic and trade relations and on measures to combat the often-lethal smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea.

The leaders of Italy, the Netherlands and the European Commission made their second visit to Tunis in just over a month. They expressed hope that a memorandum newly signed with Tunisia during the trip would pave the way for a comprehensive partnership.

On their last visit in June, the leaders held out the promise of more than 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in financial aid to rescue Tunisia's teetering economy and better police its borders, to restore stability to the North African country and to stem migration from its shores to Europe.

This time, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte didn't detail the full monetary value of the EU aid on offer to Tunisia, in statements they made after talks with Tunisian President Kais Saied.

But von der Leyen said the latest trip secured agreement on "a comprehensive package of measures that we will now put into practice swiftly.”

Saied, speaking through an interpreter, said that he expects the memorandum to be followed by “a set of binding agreements” — suggesting more negotiating work ahead.

Tunisia intends to implement the memorandum “in the nearest time possible,” he said.

Specific aid that von der Leyen announced included a 10-million-euro ($11 million) program to boost exchanges of students and 65 million euros ($73 million) in EU funding to modernize Tunisian schools.

On migration, von der Leyen said: “We need an effective cooperation more than ever.”

The EU will work with Tunisia on an anti-smuggling partnership, will increase coordination in search and rescue operations and both sides also agreed to cooperate on border management, she said. Von der Leyen pledged 100 million euros ($112 million) for those efforts — a figure she had already announced on the leaders' previous visit.

Tunisia has faced an international outcry over the plight of hundreds of migrants who were deported to inhospitable desert areas on the Libya and Algeria borders. On the Tunisia-Algeria border, local reports have said as many as 30 migrants died.

Saied, however, insisted migrants are well treated.

“The Tunisian people have provided these migrants with everything possible, with unlimited generosity, while many organizations, supposed to play their humanitarian role, only manifested themselves in press releases," he said.

Rutte described the new memorandum as the "promising start of a comprehensive strategic partnership” between the EU and Tunisia that will aim to boost economic growth.

He said that EU member countries now must approve the deal, adding: “I'm very confident that there will be broad support.”