Amid violence and division in Tunisia’s parliament, the country is sleepwalking into a trade deal that could severely harm the economy.
Rabat – Tunisia is facing a government crisis while an economically devastating EU trade deal could pass with little inquiry.
Tunisia’s young democracy is struggling in its transition from authoritarianism to parliamentary democracy. Entrenched elites appear to have little interest in realizing the needs of the population while the country’s economy devolves.
A major reason why Tunisia’s government has been unable to raise living standards and address public concerns is its blind adherence to economic policies and deals the EU prescribes, according to Amsterdam-based think tank the Transnational Institute (TNI). The institute published a report (PDF) on December 8 that outlines Tunisia’s economic predicament.
Violence and chaos in parliament
Tunisia’s democratic institutions are facing a major test. On Monday, parliamentary members of the Islamist Qarama bloc resorted to violence in order to stop a parliamentary session of the Women’s Committee. The pro-Sharia Qarama bloc split from the country’s largest party, the centrist-Islamist Ennahda, and resorted to an attack with a glass bottle directed at MP Anouar Ben Chahed and two others Monday night.
The Qarama bloc’s assailants instigated the violence with the specific goal to stop the Women’s Committee from convening. The committee planned to discuss statements calling for the application of strict Sharia law by Qarama’s deputy Mohammed Affes. The violence parliament witnessed is a dark page in Tunisia’s democracy that faces major challenges.
Despair at parliament’s inaction has led to renewed protests and citizens speaking out online. This discontent prompted the former Civil Service Minister Mohamed Abbou yesterday to pose the question of whether the government ought to deploy the army domestically to quash public dissent.
Yet the political and economic troubles that Tunisia is facing are not just due to political indifference or mismanagement, according to TNI. Tunisia is sinking into an economic abyss because it is actively following EU-prescribed economic policies, with a problematic new trade deal on the horizon.
“Tunisia has undergone radical changes in the past decade, and faces more in the years to come, if the EU has its way,” the think tank said.
EU undermining Tunisia’s economy
While the EU nominally supports the idea of democracies, its economic advice and offered deals actively undermine Tunisia, TNI concludes in its report. The EU’s free trade offerings do nothing but “drain Tunisia’s wealth,” according to the report’s authors.
Since the country’s 2011 revolution, the power of local elites has only grown, supported by economic trends. Western actors are prescribing economic policies that “many believe created the problems in Tunisia in the first place,” according to TNI’s analysis.
The neoliberal economic policies that the EU pushes in every deal and policy proposal directly mirror colonial economic structures in Tunisia. The system favors the needs of the ruling power and continues the dependence on the country’s former colonial ruler.
These problematic economic policies are all present in Tunisia’s upcoming free trade deal with the EU.
The EU has for the last five years negotiated a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with Tunisia that could have a “very significant” impact on Tunisia’s economy while not receiving much public scrutiny from Tunisia’s government.
The EU’s DCFTA deal would further worsen the power imbalance between Tunisia and the EU, it is pushed on the country through coercion, and it excludes civil society. These three factors mean that Tunisia is heading for further economic trouble with little democratic scrutiny or public debate.
Tunisia as the EU’s sweatshop
The EU’s economic policy prescriptions are unlikely to raise living conditions, precisely because it sees Tunisia’s poor as a resource to be exploited, according to TNI. While other close partners in North Africa, such as Morocco and Algeria, have significant natural resources to offer, the EU sees Tunisia’s low-paid workers as its main comparative advantage.
Tunisia’s upcoming trade deal with the EU would further liberalize the country’s agricultural and service sectors as EU money flows in.
“The agreement will allow the local labour force to be taken advantage of at the lowest price,” TNI said. The agreement is set to undermine Tunisian business and destroy small enterprises amid a “tsunami of EU products and capital flooding in.”
The EU is using the free trade deal as a step towards improving foreign direct investment and providing a step towards further integration into European markets. These economic promises are the “carrot” that the EU offers.
Yet simultaneously the EU applies a “stick.” The EU has “exercised pressure and blackmail” by placing Tunisia on blacklists for tax havens and money launderers as a means of punishing the country.
Tunisia’s upcoming EU trade deal will “serve and strengthen the interests of the dominant rich classes in Tunisia at the expense of the rest of society,” TNI argues in its report.
With little public scrutiny or political debate, the EU deal could devastate Tunisia’s economy and worsen the public’s perspectives on democracy and their elected officials.