European Parliament members clashed in the plenary in Strasbourg on September 12 over the European Union’s controversial migration deal with Tunisia, with some calling it vital while others claim it is akin to a “dance with the devil”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took a positive stance in her State of the Union speech, saying that the agreement with Tunisia, which involves more than €100 million in EU aid, would bring “mutual benefits”. It should act as a model for agreements with other countries, she said.
But reports of racist incidents in the North African country alongside shocking images of people being driven into the desert and left there seem to suggest not everything is as rosy as depicted.
In the European Parliament, opinion was divided. Some parties support the deal, most notably European People’s Party President Manfred Weber.
The parties of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the heads of state who also signed the deal with the Tunisian Presient Kais Saied, also backed the move, calling it a “blueprint”.
Marco Zanni, of the Identity and Democracy group in the Italian government party La Lega, was more sceptical, saying the “EU doesn’t really want to get to grips with that problem”.
Likewise in the Netherlands, Samira Refaela of the governing D66 party and a member of Renew Europe, criticised the EC President. “It’s crazy von der Leyen did not learn from the Turkey deal.”
The left-leaning Spanish Government, currently holder of the European Union presidency, defended the agreement, while the Socialist S&D Group said it wanted the EU to “reconsider” it.
The S&D Group vice-president responsible for foreign affairs Pedro Marques pointed to what he said was “democratic backsliding, rule of law jeopardised, human rights, opposition rights, freedom of media and speech violated. Racist attacks against black migrants”.
“Despite all of this, with no involvement of the … Parliament nor transparency on how the EU funds will be spent, the European Commission has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tunisian President Kais Saied,” Marques said.
On the Right, the ECR Group in the Parliament is also divided. Ryszard Czarnecki of the Polish ruling PiS party said the deal would be instrumental in reducing and better controlling migration across the Mediterranean.
In a statement sent to Brussels Signal he said: “My country has long said that we must do everything to support countries in Africa and Asia from where immigrants and refugees come to Europe.”
MEP Assita Kanko, representing Belgium’s N-VA, which is also part of the ECR, said: “No one is impressed by what the EU has done here, especially not the human traffickers or the Tunisian leader.
“Today, we have the highest numbers [of migrants] since 2016. The only effect is the explosive influx through Tunisia and the embarrassment of the EU.
“You cannot sign a blank cheque for every problem you are afraid to solve. Now the EU has to dance with the devil. I’m not joining in,” he stated.
EU-Tunesië deal is dansen met de duivel en hem daar ook nog voor betalen. Niemand is onder de indruk. Het enige effect is de explosieve toestroom via Tunesië en de rode wangen van de EU.
Je kan geen blanco cheque tekenen voor elk probleem dat je niet durft op te lossen. #EPlenary pic.twitter.com/N0CnXDvzMa
— Assita Kanko MEP (@Assita_Kanko) September 12, 2023
In Belgium, almost all parties seem opposed; next to the NVA and the right-wing Vlaams Belang, the Social Democrats, Greens, radical leftists and most Liberals were also critical of the deal.
The Tunisia agreement foresees unconditional EU financial aid to the country to manage its borders, together with funds for projects to reinforce ties between the bloc and Tunisia, through Italy.
In July, the EU’s home affairs chief Ylva Johansson reported a significant surge in asylum seekers departing Tunisia for Europe this year, with the number reaching 45,000 so far.
Among this group, approximately 5,000 individuals were believed to be of Tunisian descent, indicating that the country is becoming a favoured transit point for migrants and refugees wishing to enter Europe.