The EU consolidated its relationship with the Tunisian government and supported broader development while taking a “hands off” approach on domestic political debates.
The EU had two aims in its relationship with Tunisia in 2012: supporting a stable democratic transition and economic development, and establishing itself as Tunisia’s main partner.
On the first objective, progress in 2012 was good. Tunisia focused on the key building blocks of a new democracy and in particular on drawing up a new constitution. The EU was relatively united: it took a “hands off” approach to domestic political debates about constitutional references to blasphemy and the role of women, and focused instead on the process and the precarious economic situation. New announcements of EU support punctuated the year. On a visit to Tunisia in July, Enlargement and ENP Commissioner Stefan Füle pledged €20 million for competitiveness and €7 million for civil society. The European Commission launched a €12 million package for healthcare support in August and a four-year, €25m Support for Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth (SPRING) programme for justice sector reform in October. The Tunisia Task Force, convened by Special Representative Bernardino León, also met for the second time in 2012.
Progress on the EU’s second objective – that is, encouraging Tunisia to view the EU as its preferred partner – is harder to assess. The signature at the EU–Tunisia Association Council in November 2012 of a “Privileged Partnership” underlined the EU’s collective commitment. However, there were other indicators in 2012 that parts of Tunisian society felt less affinity with the West. Tunisia struggled with the return of political violence, with attacks against members of opposition parties, and excessive use of force against unions. The Salafi movement grew in prominence, with high-profile incidents such as the replacement of a Tunisian flag by a black Islamist flag at Manouba University in Tunis in March. In September, rioters attacked and burned the American embassy and school in Tunis. Although senior EEAS officials argued that the Tunisian government was “more European than ever”, Commission representatives feared that Tunisian society was less focused on Europe than a year ago.