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Claudio Francavilla is a leading EU advocate at Human Rights Watch..
Presented for years as the sole success of the Arab Spring, today’s Tunisia is anything but.
Since staging a “constitutional coup” in 2021, President Kais Saied has dissolved the country’s parliament and fired its prime minister, concentrated power in his office, imprisoned critics and opponents, and crushed aspirations democratic.
Then, finding himself unable to deal with the country’s deep economic crisis, Saied resorted to classic populism: attacking scapegoats.
For Saied, this means black African migrants and asylum seekers – also a favored target of the European far right. Accused of all the ills of the country, while being dehumanized and defamed by hate speech (uttered by Saied himself), black Africans in Tunisia have suffered horrible abuses, including violence, discrimination and collective expulsions. at the land borders of Tunisia, leading to dozens of deaths.
Given the European Union’s countless commitments to human rights and democracy in its foreign policy, one might have expected a strong reaction to abuses and calls for Tunisia’s return to democracy.
In fact, the opposite happened.
During a trip to Tunisia in July, the controversial “Team Europe” pledged hundreds of millions of euros to support the country’s economic development, asking in return for nothing more than cooperation to prevent migrants and asylum seekers to head towards Europe.
Neither the agreement nor public remarks by “Team Europe” representatives made any reference to Saied’s authoritarianism or the need to end abuses against black Africans in the country.
Unfortunately, for Europe, this is not an isolated incident.
As early as 2008, Italy’s conservative government led by Silvio Berlusconi reached a migration deal with then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, condemning thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to indefinite abusive detention in the country. Nine years later, as post-Gaddafi Libya descended into anarchy, the center-left Italian government led by Paolo Gentiloni concluded – with the blessing of the EU – another agreement with the former Libyan government of national agreement, this time aimed solely at reducing migration.
Legally prohibited from returning people rescued by EU ships to Libya, European governments have also decided to suspend their search and rescue operations and inject money and equipment into the “Libyan Coast Guard”. , which were largely made up of militias, warlords and their cronies, whose brutality against migrants has been widely documented – and continues today, with the complicity of Europe.
In 2016, despite the growing authoritarianism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the EU also signed an agreement with Turkey to return Syrian refugees who arrived in Greece. The EU also provides financial support for border control to countries like Egypt and Morocco, countries whose leaders regularly receive the red carpet within the EU, regardless of their well-documented abuses, notably at the against migrants and asylum seekers.
These countries are now rumored to be next in line for deals similar to the one with Tunisia, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has hailed as a “model” for the region.
Europe’s determination to curb migration at all costs does not stop at the shores of the Mediterranean either, poisoning other areas of EU external action, notably trade and development aid. . At the Valletta summit in 2015, the EU and its member countries already agreed to condition development financing for African countries on strengthening their border controls.
And currently the Commission and EU member countries are also trying to turn the Generalized System of Preferences into a tool to blackmail Asian and African governments over migration control.
Taken individually, these examples may seem cynical, ill-conceived and short-sighted. But together they demonstrate a well-established strategy that has moved the EU away from prioritizing rights and values in its foreign policy.
The implications of this deliberate choice are devastating.
First, the EU has tragically made clear that its human rights commitments do not apply to migrants and asylum seekers, especially if they come from Africa or the Middle East. Their death, their mistreatment and their suffering are considered a better alternative than welcoming them on European soil.
Second, while the EU is collectively the world’s largest humanitarian donor and a leading voice in multilateral human rights forums, its blind support for repressive governments committed to deporting migrants amplifies the double major standards of its foreign policy. This erodes the bloc’s credibility as a principled human rights actor, making it more difficult to mobilize international support for the initiatives it wishes to pursue.
Third, by encouraging the oppressors rather than siding with the oppressed, the EU is betraying the countless activists, journalists, critics and human rights defenders who continue to pay a high price for exposing corruption and abuse. of the government, as they seek a democratic and rights-respecting transition in the country. their countries.
Finally, the choice of the EU represents an existential danger for the bloc itself. While investment in integration and establishing safe and legal pathways for orderly migration remains insufficient, European institutions and major party leaders are increasingly repeating the demagogic narrative of the far right, describing the migration as an unmanageable security problem.
This position has contributed to the rise in power and influence of the far right across Europe. And for a bloc that still makes key decisions unanimously, the risk of paralysis is obvious. Furthermore, the rise of the far right threatens not only the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, but also those of women, LGBTQ+ people and other minorities across Europe, as well as respect for rule of law in a growing number of EU countries.
Sacrificing the rights of migrants and refugees for short-term political gains is not only a morally ruinous choice, it also contributes to a chain reaction that risks having a disastrous impact on the bloc and its founding values. The next victim of the bloc’s migration obsession could well be the EU itself.