TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia on Monday announced it would reject an installment of funds sent by Europe to help the debt-ridden country patrol the Mediterranean Sea as migrant boat crossings spike to levels not seen in several years.
President Kais Saied on Monday accused the European Union of not following through on agreements made earlier this year to help Tunisia patrol its borders, curb smuggling and balance its federal budget. Though he called the disbursement “a small amount,” Saied said the decision was less about its size and more about how it “lacks respect.”
“The treasures of the world are not equal to a single grain of our sovereignty in the eyes of our people,” Saied said in a statement published on TAP, the country’s official news agency. “Tunisia, which accepts cooperation, does not accept anything that resembles charity or handouts.”
The rejection calls into question a broad agreement that the EU and Saied brokered in Rome in July to provide more than 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) to Tunisia. It will likely amplify worries about the country’s spiraling financial woes among credit rating agencies, lenders, Tunisian government workers and people reliant on state subsidies for food and energy.
Marcus Cornaro, the EU’s ambassador to Tunisia, brushed off concerns about the agreement’s durability, noting that rather than confrontation, Saied’s remarks demonstrated that both sides were eager to implement it.
Saied’s statement that Europe’s plan for the initial installment contradicted the agreement “speaks to Tunisia’s impatience and desire to speed up implementation,” he said, adding that Europe was also impatient to deepen its ties with Tunisia.
“We’re not in a situation of misunderstanding,” he said Tuesday on Mosaique FM, a Tunisian radio station. “This process is not behind schedule.”
The July agreement included a pledge of 105 million euros ($110 million) earmarked for migration. Tunisia has emerged as one of this year’s primary launching points for migrants and refugees — including many escaping war and poverty — seeking to reach Europe.
More than 90,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean so far from Tunisia to Italy so far this year, according to figures from UNHCR updated on Monday. The majority have done so via iron boats to Lampedusa, a small island closer to North Africa than the Italian mainland.
As arrivals increased last month, the European Commission announced it would send an initial 127 million euros ($133 million) to Tunisia. More than half of those funds were designated for migration — to fight smuggling, support Tunisian law enforcement and facilitate the return of migrants to their countries of origin.
Apart from migration, the bulk of the funds are contingent on Tunisia reaching agreement with the International Monetary Fund on stalled loan negotiations. Saied has mostly balked at the conditions demanded, including potentially painful cuts to food and energy subsidies. In April, he called the terms “diktats from abroad.”
Supporters, including Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, have hailed Europe’s agreement with Tunisia as a regional model. However, critics, including Germany, question its efficacy and worry it amounts to bankrolling Saied’s government as Tunisia’s economy flails and political opponents are jailed.
Since taking power in 2019, Saied has repeatedly characterized sub-Saharan African migrants as violent and a threat to Tunisia. Though he has shrugged off accusations of racism, the remarks have coincided with a rise in anti-Black violence in Tunisia and garnered widespread condemnation, including from parties who could be needed to buoy the economy — trade partners and the World Bank.
Saied has previously said that he has no intention of turning Tunisia into Europe’s border guard. He has bristled at proposals to allow sub-Saharan African migrants expelled from Europe to resettle in Tunisia, though previous frameworks have allowed European nations to send asylum-seekers who would face danger in their countries of origin to “safe third countries.”
The rejection of funds comes less than a month after Tunisia barred entry of European Parliament delegates attempting to visit the country, saying it wouldn’t allow interference into its internal politics.
Sam Metz reported from Rabat, Morocco.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
A previous version of this story was corrected to show that the Italian premier’s first name is Giorgia, not Georgia.