‘EU trade agreement would destabilise foundations of democracy in Tunisia’

Prominent experts from Germany and North Africa, including Tunisians, have warned European governments against imposing a new free trade agreement on Tunisia. Speaking at the launch of a new book on the topic, they claimed that the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) being discussed between the EU and Tunisia will undermine the foundations of Tunisia’s fledgling democracy.

According to Tunisian economist Sami Al-Awadi, who presented the book “Development Through Free Trade: The Neo-liberal Agenda of the European Union in North African Countries” at the launch seminar organised in Tunisia by Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the most important challenge facing the country today is that its economy is unable to withstand a genuine partnership. “There is a stark asymmetry,” he pointed out. “The European giant is negotiating with the economic dwarf, namely Tunisia.”

According to Al-Awadi, the draft DCFTA agreement being negotiated “poses real challenges to sensitive sectors such as agriculture and various service industries and public sectors.” Through the agreement, he added, European multinational businesses will be allowed to compete with local producers, who are not in any way ready to face such competition and who are in need first of qualitative and qualitative development.

The economist stressed that, in this context, there is an urgent need to establish a genuine and effective agricultural policy and support to small farmers to help them go beyond traditional and seasonal production methods and become more technically advanced, competitive and diversified.

One of his Tunisian colleagues, economist Abdul Jalil Al-Badawi, emphasised that before starting negotiations on the DCFTA, there is a real need to assess the partnership between Tunisia and the EU since 1995 and the new draft agreement. It is essential first and foremost, he insisted, to identify the needs of the Tunisian economy and develop a new model of development.

Commenting on the book, German Professor Werner Ruf said that the principles of free trade have caused Tunisia significant losses in revenue after it lifted customs duties. “These revenues are no longer available for investment in infrastructure such as schools, universities and hospitals.”

Ruf noted that after six years, “the root causes of the Revolution of 17 December 2010 – 14 January 2011 still exist and have deepened even further.” The economic and social situations — the living conditions of the overwhelming majority of Tunisians — have not improved, especially in the south and west of the country, he added.

The Tunisian middle class has experienced a stagnation in incomes while living costs have been rising. Graduating from university and obtaining qualifications often leads only to unemployment.

“Citizens’ demands for a decent life appear difficult to achieve under the neo-liberal economic system,” explained Ruf. “The result is that joining Salafist Jihadi groups provides a certain level of income.”

According to the German professor and several other economists who are referred to in the book, the fight against terrorism cannot have any meaning if we do not fight against poverty. “The state must be able to fulfil the needs of citizens in order to make the concept of democracy credible,” they say.

For Ruf, this goal can only be achieved through promoting the state’s capacity to distribute wealth and not through privatisation policies that benefit mainly foreign investors.

“If we really want to ensure the stability of democracy in Tunisia,” he concluded, “we must give the country’s economy room to breathe and create conditions that guarantee that families’ incomes are enough to ensure a dignified life.”

The representative of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tunisia, Khaled Chaabane, highlighted the fact that “Development Through Free Trade…” came about as the result of an international forum organised in October 2015.

The book, which was edited by Gisela Baumgratz, Khaled Chaabane and Werner Ruf, covers three key themes related to the EU as an advocate of neo-liberal economic policies within its foreign relations with African countries, and serves as a critique of the EU’s free trade agreements with these countries. The 282-page publication includes contributions by Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan and German economists and academics, some of whom spoke during the launch programme. It has been published in French and English, with an introduction in English and German.

Middle East Monitor

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