Tunisia and Italy: the moment of truth

The visit of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to Tunis on Wednesday, April 17th, did not bode well. It was her fourth visit to Tunis, and when adding Kais Saied’s two trips to Rome, it marked the sixth meeting between these two since their Faustian pact. The Italian Prime Minister arrived in Tunis with two of her ministers, including her Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, to reaffirm the migratory agreement and halt the arrival of migrants to Lampedusa.

This was an effort to show her voters and critics that her agreement is effective. On the other hand, Kais Saied finds himself in a tight spot. His nationalist/electoralist stance risks crumbling: endorsing Meloni’s demands, acting as her coast guard, accepting the return of migrants who passed through Tunisia and deporting them to the southern Tunisian desert in the Bir Al Fatnassya (1) camp contradicts his previous claims that Tunisia “should not serve as Europe’s border guard or a resettlement land for migrants rejected elsewhere (2).” This would also undermine his nationalist rhetoric ahead of the Tunisian presidential elections (if they take place).

Tunisia, Europe’s Border Guard

Due to its strategic location on the Mediterranean, Tunisia finds itself at the heart of the migratory crisis affecting Europe, particularly Italy. The proximity of Tunisian shores to the Italian island of Lampedusa has made coastal cities like Sfax crucial transit points for migrants seeking to reach Europe. Overcrowded and often unsafe boats regularly depart from Tunisian beaches, leading to a continuous stream of human tragedies and humanitarian crises at sea.

Under mounting pressure from the migratory crisis and with crucial European elections approaching for the Italian Prime Minister, a Faustian pact was struck between Giorgia Meloni and Kais Saied. The agreement aimed to prevent migrants from leaving Tunisian shores for Italy in exchange for European financial aid. Thus, European funds intended to stabilize the Tunisian economy and implement necessary economic reforms were diverted to an opaque migration fund that doesn’t address the root causes of migration.

This pact, which serves Italian interests by reducing the migrant flow to its shores, assigns Tunisia the role of Europe’s border guard, a position often criticized both locally and internationally. While the collaboration provides necessary economic support, it raises questions about Tunisia’s sovereignty and the ethics of European migration management practices.

Creating illusions

In the migration negotiations, Giorgia Meloni and Kais Saied opted for a deliberately vague Memorandum of Understanding, seeking to conceal the specific details of its implementation. This opacity was strategic; Saied preferred to avoid a clear understanding of the agreement, particularly that Tunisia would receive financial compensation for taking on the role of Europe’s border guard and for accepting migrants turned away by Italy. This arrangement allowed Saied to minimize internal criticism, avoiding damaging Tunisia’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, Meloni aimed to buy time and maintain the illusion that she could resolve the migration crisis, a key point on her political agenda. This illusion also captivated European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who considered using this agreement as a model for future deals with other regional countries, strengthening Europe’s periphery as a barrier against illegal immigration.

Thus, Giorgia Meloni and Kais Saied play a duplicitous game. Neither can truly solve the migration crisis. To do so would require stabilizing the Tunisian economy first, and neither Italy has the time and capacity to do so, nor does Tunisia have the vision and ability. So, they settle for a status quo, trying to extract crumbs from the EU, with migrants being tossed around, sometimes under the olive trees in Sfax, sometimes in makeshift boats to Lampedusa.

Meloni excels at this, turning pumpkins into carriages. A training program becomes a strategic cooperation plan under the Mattei plan, and an invitation to the G7 is a poisoned gift for a leader seeking recognition. We sense the strained effort to impress, whether through jokes (mentioning Laurel and Hardy) or grandiose solutions aiming to change the world so that southern peoples can prosper.

Beyond this likely final visit of Meloni to Tunis, what should we remember about this duo with opposing views? On one hand, Meloni with her excessive ambition, not hesitating to deceive partners like Tunisia with dubious strategies or to sacrifice alliances for electoral gain, as she seems to do with the controversial Ursula von der Leyen. On the other hand, Kais Saied, the honest politician dreaming of changing the world, liberating Palestine, and reforming the International Monetary Fund (IMF), lecturing anyone who will listen but ultimately failing to even restore a local pool or national stadium, having to turn to powerful China to bail him out. This is our core problem: we think small! Even with all the power, like Kais Saied, who has defeated powerful organizations and unions, we stagnate. The socio-economic situation neither improves nor worsens. The president is isolated, poorly advised, and as the saying goes, the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.

Tunisians will have to vote again in the upcoming elections, and they will have the choice to re-elect their “honest man” but this time with full knowledge.

In conclusion, like Faust, Kais Saied fails in his pact with Meloni. Presented as a cure-all, this alliance proves ineffective. Only a long-term agreement, within the framework of the EU-Tunisia association agreement, can offer viable and concrete solutions. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors.

(1) According to Romdhane Ben Amor, of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

(2) Statement by Kaïs Saïed to Gérald Darmanin and Nancy Faeser, the French and German Interior Ministers, 20 June 2023.

Article written by Ghazi Ben Ahmed and translated from French by Business News Tunisia, on 17 April 2024

Ghazi Ben Ahmed

Founder and President

Advocate for democracy, truth and justice.