European leaders visiting Tunisia Sunday held out the promise of more than 1 billion euros in financial aid as well as investments in undersea data cables and renewable energy in an effort to stem migration from its shores to Europe and restore economic stability to the North African country.
Tunisian President Kais Saied hosted the leaders of Italy, the Netherlands and the European Commission for talks aimed at smoothing the way for an international financial bailout of the increasingly troubled country. Support from President Saied is crucial to any European Union deal to curb migration.
On the eve of the talks, Saied made an unannounced visit to a migrant camp in the coastal city of Sfax, a central jumping-off point for boat journeys crossing the Mediterranean to Italy.
Saied spoke with families living in the camp, and pleaded for international aid for Africans who converge on Tunisia as a transit point to reach Europe. He added his country was not the keeper of Europe’s borders.
His words, and sympathetic images posted on the president’s Facebook page, contrasted sharply with Saied’s stance earlier this year, when he stoked racist abuse of Black African migrants in Tunisia with a speech railing against a perceived plot to erase his country’s Arab identity.
The president and Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden met with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
After the talks, von der Leyen announced a five-point program to support Tunisia, including up to €1.05 billion ($1.1 billion) in aid for Tunisia’s indebted budget. The plan will be discussed with all 27 EU countries at their next summit on June 29 and 30, she said.
In addition to the budgetary aid, the EU is discussing investment in high-speed broadband and other digital infrastructure for Tunisia, and 300 million euros in hydrogen and other renewable energy projects, von der Leyen said.
The plan also includes 100 million euros for Tunisian authorities to carry out search-and-rescue operations for migrants and anti-smuggling operations, the Commission’s president said. Amid criticism from migrant advocacy groups about forced repatriations, von der Leyen and Rutte insisted the program would respect human rights.