The EU-Tunisia deal – a blueprint for what?

“The deal is not working; it has the legal status of a beer coaster”, says MEP Sophie in ’t Veld

By Sophie in ’t Veld

MEP Sophie in ’t Veld (NL) is a coordinator for the Renew Group in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs

31 Oct 2023

The images of two prime ministers and a Commission president shaking hands with Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, last July may suggest that something substantial was achieved with the so-called Tunisia deal. The reality is less impressive.  

This is not a blueprint for a durable migration policy, as some purport. Just look at the deal’s highly predictable failings: the number of people departing from Tunisia is up, and the neighbouring Italian island of Lampedusa is in crisis. Smugglers are happy because their earnings are rising, while more people are dying in the desert.  

Tunisia’s president is rubbing Europe’s nose in it by asking for more money while refusing delegations from the European Union access to his country. Then, he even wired some of the money back. 

When it comes to examining the contents of the agreement, we can be brief. The deal is not enforceable, because the EU lacks leverage over this Tunisian government – something that was already clear at the time of its signing. Why, then, go to the trouble of having an elaborate signing ceremony? Because the spectacle in itself was the objective.  

The spectacle of a failing migration policy must be matched by equally spectacular deals, such as the one struck in Tunis. Disturbing images from overcrowded reception centres must be met with photo opportunities of leaders looking forceful on the docks of Lampedusa. At each photo opportunity, there are promises made to the public - – promises that cannot be kept.  

The EU Member State governments and their European Council are incapable of solving migration by themselves. The Council is neither suited for governing, nor for legislating. This becomes evident in the fact the deal is not working; it has the legal status of a beer coaster. It is a “memorandum of understanding – hardly an international treaty. Whatever label is slapped on the Tunisia deal, Italy and Lampedusa are not helped by it, nor by stopping rescue missions.  

For a durable solution, we need internal reforms. Countries on the Mediterranean need European solidarity, which means the allocation of migrants among different Member States. Our leaders know this, but they are wishing away this uncomfortable truth by focusing only on the “external dimension” – jargon for closing the borders and stopping people coming to Europe at all.  

This strategy has never worked, but Member States are pursuing it anyway, because they feel the need to show they are doing something. This is the reason we ended up with a pompous show in Tunisia. The prime ministers of Italy and the Netherlands were there to rub some of the aura of their offices on to the deal, but they played no formal role. The government leaders were there to ‘polish a turd’, as our American friends might say. Commissioner Olivér Varhelyi did the real work; the actual signing. The poor commissioner was a glorified fountain pen, flown in from Brussels.  

This deal cannot be fixed. It certainly cannot be a blueprint for a comprehensive migration policy. Yes, we need to make deals with people we do not like, but we do not have to lower our standards or relinquish our values. We should not let people die in the desert, nor should we boost the business of human traffickers who are clearly profiting from this deal.  

It is time to return to the normal way of doing things in the EU; boring legislative processes. There will be fewer photo opportunities, but it is much more democratic and much more effective.  

As you read this, the two actual legislators of the EU – the Parliament and the Council – will have taken positions on a package of migration policies that form a broad common EU pact on asylum and migration. Member States should let them talk and allow them to not only suggest, but actually decide on real solutions.