EU single market access could help save Tunisia’s fragile democracy
Six years after the Arab Uprisings that shocked the world, Tunisia is the only participating country that has not degenerated into civil war (Syria, Libya, Yemen) or even greater autocracy (Bahrain, Egypt). But its transition to democracy is extremely fragile, and risks falling foul of the same dynamics that brought down the Ben Ali regime, according to a new report from ECFR.
At the heart of Tunisia’s difficulty in maintaining stability is the age-old disparity between the developed, Mediterranean coast, and the long-neglected ‘periphery’, consisting of Tunisia’s inland areas and borders with Algeria and Libya. In these areas, unemployment, poverty and a lack of opportunities are the result of decades of asymmetric state-building by colonial France and the independent governments of Bourguiba (1956-1987) and Ben Ali (1987-2011).
Since 2011, despite generous international assistance amounting to almost $7 billion between 2011 and 2015, Tunisia’s democratic governments have failed to bridge this divide. Instead, war in neighbouring Libya and a crackdown on terrorism and smuggling on the Tunisian side of the border has excluded many from the cross-border economy that local communities relied on for their livelihoods, and increased corruption among the security services controlling the borders.
What Tunisia needs is a coherent regional development and governance plan; one that decentralises investment decisions to the regions and improves the coordination of funding and completion of planned projects, in order to provide both security and economic development to the periphery.
The EU can play a major role in encouraging the Tunisian government to achieve this goal by bringing Tunisia more deeply into its economic orbit, and providing incentives and support for capacity building.
The best way it could do this would be to take the extraordinary step of inviting Tunisia to join the EU’s single market via the European Economic Area (EEA), which would provide a real incentive to galvanise the economic and governance reforms the country needs for stability, prosperity and integration of the peripheries. Tunisia’s peripheries could take advantage of the EEA cohesion fund, which plays an important role in developing the internal market’s poorest regions, and Tunisia could also benefit from the mechanisms of the so-called ‘EEA and Norway Grants’ designed to strengthen equality of opportunity, security and standards of living through the EEA.
The EU can also help preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy by helping to promote the private sector through partnership between local banks and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and by promoting the social role of the military with better oversight mechanisms, training, and with army programmes of vocational training for young people in Tunisia’s peripheries.