The Tunisian government has sent back the €60 million in EU funds that were released last week, the European Commission confirmed on Thursday.
“The Commission has been informed that Tunisia returned the payment of 60 million euros,” said Ana Pisonero, the Commission’s spokesperson for enlargement and neighbourhood, without specifying a reason for the repayment.
“Contacts and discussions are ongoing.”
Asked if something like this has ever happened before with a non-EU country, the spokesperson said “as far as we are aware, no.”
The Tunisian Foreign Affairs Ministry did not immediately reply to emailed questions.
The grants, which come from a previous COVID-19 recovery programme, were designed as budget support and were directly transferred to the bank account of the Tunisian treasury. This was supposed to be the first disbursement of a larger €127-million tranche that also includes money earmarked under the EU-Tunisia memorandum of understanding signed in July.
But days after the European Commission announced the €127-million envelope in late September, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the financial offer, saying it was “derisory” and contrary to the agreement.
“Tunisia, which accepts cooperation, does not accept anything resembling charity or favour, because our country and our people do not want sympathy and do not accept it when it is without respect,” Saied said last week.
“Consequently, Tunisia refuses what has been announced in recent days by the EU.”
The blunt remarks were widely covered by the media and sparked outrage in Brussels, where the memorandum has been touted as a blueprint for future agreements with neighbouring countries to stem migration flows.
In a bid to control the spiralling narrative, the Commission said on the record that €60 million had been effectively paid in budgetary support “following a request from the Tunisian government on the 31st of August.”
Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood, took it a step further and publicly invited Tunisia to “wire back” the money if it did not want it. The Commissioner shared his message on X, formerly Twitter, with a screenshot of the Tunisian document asking for the €60 million to be released.
“Implementation of the (memorandum) should continue once Tunisia returns to the spirit of our strategic & comprehensive partnership based on mutual respect,” Várhelyi said.
Now, that spirit seems to be in tatters as Saied follows through on this threat.
The Commission, however, insisted that, despite the latest setback, the agreement would carry on and “occupy us for quite some time,” even if no further disbursement is expected to take place in the coming days.
“This memorandum of understanding is very important. It’s very important for Tunisia. It’s very important for the European Union. It is a long-term endeavour,” said Eric Mamer, the Commission’s chief spokesperson, speaking next to Pisonero.
“Yes, there are going to be bumps, sometimes significant, on the road. But the Commission will continue to work on its implementation with the Tunisian authorities. This is the point we’re at today.”
A contentious memorandum
Still, the refund, previously reported by Politico Europe, is an extraordinary rebuke and represents yet another deterioration in the already fragile EU-Tunisia relations, which the bloc is desperate to maintain intact as part of its migration policy.
The goal of decreasing the number of migrant vessels that depart from Tunisian shores and make their way to Italy was the prime motivation behind the memorandum, officially signed in a mid-July ceremony attended by President Kais Saied, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
“In times of geopolitical uncertainties, it is important to deepen cooperation with our strategic partners,” von der Leyen said back then.
The agreement earmarks at least €150 million in budget support, €105 million in migration management, €307.6 million for a transmission line of low-cost renewable electricity and €150 million for a submarine cable of optical fibre technology. It also opens the door for €900 million in macro-financial assistance but only if Tunisia first succeeds in securing a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
“Are there further payments meant for Tunisia? The answer is yes, in the context of the implementation of the memorandum of understanding, which has some way to go,” Mamer said when asked about the promised cash.
“There will come a point where, we hope, we will be in a position to disburse those funds to Tunisia. Quite clearly, we’re not there yet.”
Since its presentation, the memorandum has been the target of intense criticism from the European Parliament and humanitarian organisations, who have raised the alarm about the abuses allegedly committed by the Tunisian authorities against sub-Saharan migrants, including multiple cases of collective expulsions to the Libyan border.
Last month, the European Ombudsman formally asked the Commission to clarify if the text included any additional safeguards to guarantee full respect for human rights.
Saied has been strongly condemned for his racist views of black Africans, whom he has described as being part of a “criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape of Tunisia.” Further criticism was piled on Saied after he denied entry to five Members of the European Parliament and, days later, postponed an official visit of a delegation of the European Commission.
Source : Euronews