Europeans were relatively united and put together a respectable package of financial assistance. But complicity with the Ben Ali regime will hamper their influence in the transition.
As the country that triggered the Arab Awakening, Tunisia is a test case for the whole region. Europe has an interest in supporting the transition and in maintaining influence in whatever new regime is to emerge from the revolution. But the history of complicity with the Ben Ali regime limited Europe’s credibility. The rapid escalation of popular demonstrations in late December and January took everybody by surprise, particularly Italy and France, which should have been more aware of the popular mood and political situation. Just a few days before Zine El Abidine Ben Ali finally fled, France’s foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, was still offering him French knowhow on riot control.
After Ben Ali left, the EU was able to coalesce around a common vision, helped by a relatively stable situation in Tunis and solid counterparts in the transitional government. The EU established a task force for Tunisia to co-ordinate support by donors and partners and committed collectively a package of financial assistance for 2011, including €800 million in loans from the EIB and €160 million in grants from the European Commission (double the initial amount). Similar amounts are in the pipeline for 2012, mainly focusing on economic recovery and rural development. But although this was not an insignificant offer considering the economic crisis, some Tunisian officials called it “ridiculous”. The EU also offered electoral assistance, negotiations on “Advanced Status”, a DCFTA and a Mobility Partnership for the first time in the Southern Neighbourhood. Humanitarian aid helped buffer the outcome of the Libyan crisis and official visits continued steadily throughout the year.
Although Tunisia held successful elections in October, the transition is far from complete. Poland has offered Tunisia its transition expertise. The main challenge will be to ensure wide ownership of the democratic process and to deliver economic growth. Although political parties seem ready to build a new relationship with the EU, it will take Europeans a lot of time and effort to rebuild trust among the Tunisian people.