The future of European-Tunisian relations will likely be determined within the next two weeks. Within that time — ahead of the European Union (EU) summit at the end of June — Tunisian President Kais Saied will have to decide whether to accept a "Partnership Programme" proposed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Earlier this week, von der Leyen proposed a €900 million ($971 million) economic aid package for Tunisia as well as another €150 million in immediate budget assistance and a further €105 million for border management and anti-smuggling activities.
The last part of the offer, in particular, highlights Tunisia's potential role as a gatekeeper of migration from North Africa to Europe.
"The proposed EU-package would stabilize the Tunisian economy," Hamza Meddeb, a Tunis-based research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center think tank, told DW.
"But the deal would come at the price of Tunisia's full cooperation on the issue of migration as well as a re-admission of [asylum-rejected] Tunisian and Sub-Saharan migrants," Meddeb added.
The proposal comes just days after draft European migration reforms that seek to allow Italy to deport asylum-seekers and migrants to countries like Tunisia.
Deadly human trafficking
With Italy's coasts only 150 kilometers (90 miles) away, Tunisia has become a major hub for migrants en route to Europe.
According to Italy's Ministry of the Interior, some 53,800 migrants have already reached its shores from Tunisia in 2023 — twice as many as during the whole of 2022. Many of those people arrived with the help of traffickers who put profit over safety.
According to the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Missing Migrants Project, around 1,000 people died or went missing in the first four months of 2023, compared to 690 over the same period last year.
"We both [the EU and Tunisia] have a vast interest in breaking the cynical business model of smugglers and traffickers," von der Leyen said in Tunis on Monday.
"The intention to address these huge moneymaking mafia networks in a concerted effort is the most important announcement in my eyes," Heike Löschmann, director of the Tunis office of Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation, told DW.
"I hope they are honestly committed, but I am afraid it costs much more to effectively fight people being traded, enslaved and smuggled... and such an effort needs to address countries of origin and mafias in Europe, too," she added.
Mohamed Hamed, a Sudanese refugee waiting for an EU visa, doubts the proposed deal will improve the situation. "It is unfortunate that whatever the agreement between Tunisia and the European Union may be, the biggest losers will still be migrants and refugees," he told DW in Tunis.
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), a human rights NGO, said the details of the proposal are anything but new.
"The European delegation presented a proposal it previously submitted in 2014," FTDES spokesperson Romdhane Ben Omar told DW. "Tunisia rejected it at that time, but now it is restored, and it again aims to trade halting irregular immigration for money and aid to Tunisia," he added.
However, Saied's willingness to engage now is likely greater than in 2014, when Tunisia was widely viewed as a democratic success following the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
Today, Tunisia's economy is rapidly deteriorating, so much so that US ratings agency Fitch downgraded Tunis' credit rating to "junk" status last Friday. That means Tunis faces the real risk of defaulting on its loans, possibly triggering the collapse of state finances.
Acceptance of the proposal could be an economic game changer, but in order to get the EU deal — and the cash it would bring — Saied must first overcome another obstacle.
The EU proposal is tied to a €1.7 billion loan agreement between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
That deal has been stalled for months after being rejected by the influential Tunisian General Labor Union as well as Saied himself, who has renewed his calls for a revision of "diktats" he considers unfit "to benefit the population."
Sub-Saharan migrants remain unwelcome
Meanwhile, as the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) sees it, the proposed migration deal remains far from acceptable.
"It is highly problematic that the EU is seeking to curb irregular departures from Tunisia," Lauren Seibert, a researcher at HRW's refugee and migrant rights division, told DW.
"Everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own, and everyone has the right to seek asylum. And seeking to prevent people from leaving violates that right."
Seibert said the "EU has already been spending millions of euros" for years. "Supporting — as they call it — 'migration management,' which is essentially migration control and border control in Tunisia."
She now fears money from the proposed migration deal would "reinforce Tunisian security forces, including police and the national guard at sea," both of which she notes, "have committed serious abuses against migrants and asylum-seekers."
Edited by Jon Shelton