The banner stretched across the entire right lane of the wide Avenue Bourguiba in downtown Tunis. “Angela Merkel! Tunesien ist nicht die abfall von Deutschland” (“Tunisia isn’t a garbage of Germany”) could be read in large black letters against a white background.
Even the rough German and the labeling of people as garbage couldn’t distract from the fundamental message that thousands of demonstrators sought to convey last Sunday: Many Tunisians are angry and fearful that their government could bow to pressure from Berlin and agree to mass deportations of Tunisians back to their native country.
The demonstrators fear that the already fragile republic will become even more unstable if rejected asylum seekers return in frustration and become all the more susceptible to the propaganda of IS and other terrorist groups.
But the German government is unwilling to continue to take such fears into account, especially after the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market, carried out by a Tunisian who had been refused asylum, killed 14 people. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière of the Christian Democratic Union wants to renegotiate repatriation agreements in their entirety. Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, says that if necessary, “also economic sanctions shouldn’t be excluded” in order to force countries like Tunisia to finally cooperate.
But that view is facing opposition by none other than Gerd Müller, a member of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party. As Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, he sees North African countries from another perspective: “We need an economic stabilization. No one here in Germany would benefit if these countries collapse and further millions of persons head toward Europe.”
He is working on an Africa Plan which – just as with the Marshall Plan in war-torn Europe – would help the countries in the region with education, investment and infrastructure. For the future, Mr. Müller even envisions an expansion of the European economic zone: “We must work in the long term toward a free trade zone with North Africa as well as with the Middle East.” For the short term, he is calling for a “development-tax law” in order to promote German investment in the developing world through quicker tax write-offs.
But the CSU minister is encountering resistance from Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of the CDU. In response to an inquiry, a Schäuble spokesman said that tax incentives to promote investment from industrial nations are “not uncontroversial regarding their effectiveness on the basis of earlier experiences and are viewed critically from the perspective of the finance ministry.”
Instead of the Africa Plan proposed by his cabinet colleague, Mr. Schäuble has come up with a “Compact with Africa,” a plan that was drawn up expressly for the German presidency of the G20 in 2017. It assigns an important role to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, especially in the implementation of structural reforms. The big difference to Mr. Müller’s plan is that Mr. Schäuble wants to require North African countries to make more efforts themselves through reforms.
Nonetheless: Both ministries are communicating with each other about “a coordination of the respective proposals.” State guarantees have a good chance of being realized. The word from the finance ministry is that the departments are set to soon hold talks about “proposals in the area of financing and security collateral.” Mr. Müller says the specific focus is “that we increasingly take over state pledges like Hermes especially for North Africa. Entrepreneurs need a loan guarantee.”
Time is pressing, especially for Tunisia. Young men in particular, to whom the Arab Revolution brought civil rights but no paid work up to now, are susceptible to radical ideology. Law professor Salwa Hamrouni from Tunis University warns about violent upheavals. “Already today, Tunisia is struggling with security problems that for the most part come from the opening of our borders to Libyan refugees in 2011,” she says. “This uncontrolled influx allowed many mercenaries and terrorists to enter Tunisia.”
In the eyes of many Tunisians, every returnee, regardless of from where, is a potential terrorist whose citizenship should be revoked. So the German government has little grounds to hope for a quick breakthrough when Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed travels to Berlin at the end of January. Because Mr. Chahed is thinking first of all about his own voters – and only then of German sensitivities.
This article originally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication to Handelsblatt.