European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly delivers a speech on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman’s duties, during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 09 June 2021. EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND


EU watchdog bares teeth over Tunisia migration deal


The European Commission is being quizzed by the European Ombudsman over how it will ensure respect for human rights in light of the controversial deal it made with Tunisia.

The European Union watchdog has opened an own-initiative inquiry into how the EC intends to guarantee human rights in the context of the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

Ombudman Emily O’Reilly highlighted concerns about the apparent absence of a prior human-rights impact assessment, especially relating to the “migration and mobility” pillar of the MoU and the actions foreseen under that.

She urged the EC to respond to a series of questions regarding how it expects to monitor the human-rights aspect of MoU and what steps it has planned, including the possibility of suspending EU financing if human-rights abuses are discovered in Tunisia.

On September 13, O’Reilly wrote a letter to European Commission President Urusla von der Leyen stressing there “should be a prior and explicit evaluation of the human-rights impact of relevant policies and actions”.

With that in mind, O’Reilly asked three specific questions she wants to see addressed by December 13.

The Ombudsman said she wants to know how the EC will ensure that actions funded by the EU in Tunisia, specifically regarding migration and mobility, align with human-rights standards as mandated by the bloc’s regulations.

She further asked if the EC had established specific criteria for suspending funds in cases where such standards are not respected in Tunisia.

Lastly, she also wanted to know how the EC intends to guarantee that actions funded by the EU in Tunisia, particularly those related to migration, adhere to human-rights standards as required by EU regulations. “Are there established criteria for suspending funds if human-rights violations occur?”

O’Reilly said she would publish the EC’s responses on her organisation’s website.

The European Ombudsman is an inter-institutional body of the EU that holds the organisations, bodies and agencies of the bloc to account.

Although it has no binding powers to force compliance with its rulings, overall adherence is high using its primary tools of persuasion and publicity.

If the EC were to give an unsatisfactory reply on the respect for human-rights questions, it would be a blow for the EU, as proponents, often Member States’ ruling parties, see the deal with Tunisia as “a blueprint” for other similar treaties.

The agreement has garnered criticism from all political sides. Since it was brokered and the EU promised €1 billion to Tunisia, a record number of migrants have left the North African country for Europe, leading to a migrant crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Reports of racism and violence against migrants in Tunisia are piling up. The recent plenary debate in the European Parliament on the subject became heated at times.