What if European aid went to the Tunisian private sector?

© Jeune Afrique

Will there be a new twist in the interminable soap opera surrounding European financial aid to Tunisia? Negotiated over the summer, split into several instalments and subject to conditions, the €60 million package (out of a planned total of €127 million) was finally rejected in early October by President Kaïs Saïed, who said he would not accept what he saw as “charity or a favour”.

On 25 October, further discussions were held on the subject at the initiative of Salima Yenbou MEP, member of the Renew group’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET), and Ghazi Ben Ahmed, founder and chairman of the Tunis-based think-tank Mediterranean Development Initiative (MDI).

During a round table entitled “Rethinking support for the entrepreneurial ecosystem and cooperation between the European Union and the southern neighbourhood”, a new reorientation of funds was envisaged, in particular towards the Tunisian private sector, which has shown remarkable resilience throughout the years of crisis.

On the European side, it was understood that the Tunisian partner should not be pushed into accepting ready-made solutions that did not take account of local specificities. The memorandum of understanding on a strategic and comprehensive partnership hastily negotiated in July 2023 fell short on this point, and the result was not long in coming: the payment of aid has stalled, misunderstandings are multiplying and what was supposed to be a measure strengthening the ties between Brussels and Tunis has instead weakened the relationship.

Approach to be reviewed

The idea discussed in Brussels was to use part of the European funds to support Tunisian companies in a difficult context: a small local market, falling purchasing power, legislative and administrative obstacles blocking opportunities for development and internationalisation, and public policies with no real prospects. This is not a new observation, but one that requires urgent adaptation. As Salima Yenbou explains, “the ‘helping hand’ model is a thing of the past. It’s time for a win-win situation, and the EU must be the driving force and leader in this transformation”.

For the participants in the round table discussion on 25 October, a way out of the crisis is possible by focusing on the internationalisation of Tunisian companies and on innovative entrepreneurship, in the spirit of a dynamic of circular mobility that enhances the value of both sides of the Mediterranean. “Helping innovative Tunisian cross-border companies will not exacerbate competition for European companies, but will add efficiency and competitiveness to European industry as a whole by creating synergies and new opportunities for both sides”, Ghazi Ben Ahmed assures to reassure the sceptics, chilled by the conclusion of a much-criticised agreement that essentially consisted in turning the country into a policeman for irregular migration. Since then, this overly expeditious approach has taken on water on all sides, despite the stubbornness of the President of the Italian Council, Giorgia Meloni.


Several avenues of partnership have been envisaged: the creation of support funds, visa facilitation with residence permits for technological nomads, easier access to information and funding to support the development of technology and innovative entrepreneurship. Not to mention contributions to “incubators” and other “accelerators” eligible for financial support from the European Commission.

All these projects must now go beyond the debate stage, become concrete, go through the procedures, reach agreements and put in place the tools to make them feasible. The problem is that all this will take time, and there is an urgent need for action. Given this urgency, the idea that is emerging is to immediately reallocate the 60 million euros refused by Tunisia to a technological co-development fund. The money thus mobilised would serve as a lever for the financing and development of innovative Tunisian technology companies. The idea sounds promising. It still needs to be validated and implemented at political level.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *