Uniting for the Mediterranean: A Look at Tunisia (by Sergej Schellen)

16 Jan

Uniting for the Mediterranean:
A Look at Tunisia



                 EuroMed Agreements
Tunisia’s Internal and Regional Politics

A Turning Point; The Arab Uprisings

Spillover in the Mediterranean




Ever since the European community came together to form agreements based on common needs, the countries along the Mediterranean looked like a promising region for Europeans to partner up with as well.

Relations between the European Union (EU), or back when it was still the European Economic Community (EEC), and the countries along the Mediterranean therefore have been constantly developing over the years. These relations have been both in the form of bilateral agreements with individual states and multilateral treaties between European states and Mediterranean Partner Countries (MPC). The most important of the agreements are the Barcelona Process, which was given the name of Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (1993), the European Neighborhood Policy (2004), which targeted Eastern European countries and Mediterranean countries with individual bilateral agreements, and the most recent Union for the Mediterranean (2007), which was proposed by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and labeled as being there to improve on the Barcelona Process.
However, the development of relations between countries in the Mediterranean and European states never fully fulfilled all the goals that were put in place, leaving agreements like the Barcelona Process far from being as successful in integrating the member countries as compared to in the EU.

Part of the reason why things never had kicked off quite as planned was because each non-European state along the Mediterranean had its own goals that were mainly focused on bilateral relations with the EU, rather than trying to incorporate with all the members of the Barcelona Process as a whole because of a lack of a will to integrate.
This has left the European community as the sole player in trying to bring the Euro-Mediterranean region under a single regional organization, thus making the EEC and then the EU as the most important actor of fostering integration in the coming future.
Because of the strong focus on bilateral relations between the EEC/EU and individual MPCs, I have decided that in my paper I will focus on relations between the EEC/EU and the Mediterranean Partner Country of Tunisia. I will focus on Tunisia as a sample of how events have played out in the last few decades, how they are now that there has been a significant game changing event, and see where things could potentially lead for Tunisia and its relations with its neighboring countries as well as the European Union and all other states which are part of the Union for the Mediterranean. In writing this paper I will rely on neofunctional theory to try and answer whether the recent Arab uprising in Tunisia will help to accelerate integration in the Mediterranean region as a whole. I choose to focus on Tunisia in this text due to the fact that it is a country already open to the idea of integration and regionalism being part of the Arab Maghreb Union, the Arab League, and being particularly close to the European Union, for example being the first country to sign the Association Agreement as well as being the first country in the Mediterranean to have a free trade agreement with the EU (2008).

In the first part of the paper I shall summarize how the events in the last half of the century have developed, looking into the different agreements Tunisia took part in with the European and Mediterranean Community, as well as taking into consideration the authoritarian nature of the government during most of its recent history. Next I will focus on the time during the Arab uprisings and explain why I would refer that as a turning point of relations within the Mediterranean region as a whole. Finally I will look at current developments and bring forth my ideas of how the road ahead will be based on the neofunctionalist theory.


Before being able to assess what will happen to the Mediterranean region and Tunisia in the future the foundations of the existing structures must be observed and for that reason I shall start off with giving an outline of the Euro-Mediterranean (EuroMed) Agreements of the past few decades, following with the situation in Tunisia.

EuroMed Agreements

The Mediterranean Region and European Continent have been connected for thousands of years over many civilizations, with empires many times stretching out across both areas. Perhaps, then it is no surprise that as globalization brings the world closer together, in part through regionalization, the European community didn’t take long to look to the Mediterranean once they started to establish themselves as a single entity, the EEC.
Therefore when focusing on the Mediterranean region it’s almost impossible to ignore the role the European Union, and earlier the European Economic Community, as well as the roles of individual European states played, and will play, in the future of the region.
Shortly after the Europeans had come together for the first time after the Second World War to form a common community, it was also the first time the issue of how to deal with the Mediterranean came into play. The European Coal and Steel Community had just come together to form the European Economic Community when they first came together to agree for a common trade tariff agreement with Mediterranean States in 1958, this being the first step in a common approach to its neighboring region. [1]
The next step that was taken to try and copy the success of the European Community, in its economic and political success, to some degree in the region to the south was in the 1970th, was when the European Economic Community started to have a Global Mediterranean Policy (GMP), being the first unitary approach which went into effect in 1972. This Global Mediterranean Policy was a sign that the EEC saw the Mediterranean as a region homogenous enough to approach in a common way. The policy however was just a series of bilateral agreements that were almost identical to each other; not taking into account specific needs of different countries. Even though the GMP was focused on opening Europe as a trading market for Mediterranean countries it spurred little increase in trade due to the mismatch of economies of scale. Yet it was the only treaty for a long time as the EEC somewhat neglected the region and focused more on its none-EEC European Neighbors. Even when the EEC became the EU and renewed their agreements with Mediterranean countries (1991-1995) to focus on human rights, promotion of the environment and promotion of democracies, as well as the economic goals, under the title of the Renewed Mediterranean Policy, little took effect for Mediterranean countries because of the still existing gap between the regions.[2]
What followed in 1995 was perhaps the most important agreement, known as the Barcelona Process, is the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP). The EMP was the first multilateral framework for the EU and MPCs, and was based on the principles of joint ownership, dialogue and co-operation, and under the motivation of building a common region of peace, security and prosperity along the Mediterranean (it is also interesting to note that the Arab states and Israel were both part of this agreement).
The Barcelona Process was put into three sub-areas: that of political and security, the second of economic and financial aspects and the third on social and cultural ones. Under the second sub-area came the hopes of achieving a free trade area along the Mediterranean and the EU. Following that hope several Euro-Med Associate Agreements were adopted to have free trade in industrial goods, which Tunisia qualified for in 2008. But even this agreement could not see its full potential being reached because of certain barriers.[3]

Despite repeated efforts of cooperation along different fields of policy there were many times barriers and limitations leading to little over all development. The most successful agreements that were reached were those of trade and investment, while others focusing on good governance, peacekeeping, and human rights were the least effective. Two main barriers were that of the presence of authoritarian leaders in those states and the fact that most Arab states didn’t get very well along with Israel (Israel being included as a MPC). [4]
However things might change now that a handful of these leaders were ousted and with the establishment of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), which was established in 2007 and proposed by the French President Sarkozy to support the shortcomings of the Barcelona Process. “Europe’s future lies in the south”[5] were the Presidents words, which show a shift in how important the region has become to the EU. The UfM also had a few “upgrades” compare to its predecessor, one of which were the added goals to focus on pollution problems, development of transportation networks, preparing for natural disasters, development of solar energy, developing businesses, and building a new University to focus on Euro-Mediterranean issues. But perhaps the most important change in the UfM as compared to the previous initiatives is that it had an institutional framework, the two institutional bodies are a co-presidency and a secretariat. These show promising signs that the UfM as an institution is moving forward and could play a bigger role in the times to come.

Tunisia’s Internal and Regional Politics

Tunisia, a country in the Maghreb region in Northern Africa is already closely tied with the European Union, 80% of its exports going to the EU.[6] It was one of the main states along the Mediterranean to take part in bilateral and multilateral agreements that the EU put forth. Yet a key point that must be kept in mind when talking about Tunisia partaking in regionalization is that it has been under authoritarian rule (the more recent of which is Ben Ali) for a majority of the duration of the time since it won its independence (1956-2011). [7]

Even though the European community had always so vigorously called for support of legitimate democratic governance, the EU almost hypocritically kept Ben Ali in power. Despite the many calls for political reform in its agreements, such as the Barcelona Declaration, political pressures were not pushed for. And rather an ongoing set of agreements with a leader that did not shy away from his human rights violations. The EU’s behavior can be rationalized by seeing that it had to set other priorities; its priorities being focus on issues such as economics, anti-terrorism, and illegal migration rather than risking an unforeseeable future if they were to meddle with internal politics.[8]

It may be argued that democratizing the political structure of a state is not the job of external forces, such as the EU, because it would be interfering with the states sovereignty, and since the population didn’t show too great signs distress the status quo didn’t change over time. Though the reasons why in the past few decades the majority of people didn’t feel like shaking the structure of the single party political system of Ben Ali was because they were supplied with enough social services that all their basic needs were satisfied. [9]

These sacrifices of political rights for social services were and still are a common trade off to be found in the Middle East, where as Rentier State Theory explains, the people don’t feel a need to get represented because the funds for their services comes from elsewhere. [10]

It was only once the government could no longer pay off their nationals through these provided services like health care, education, etc… that the government started to lose the silence of the people.

Therefore a clear link exists between the lack of protest by the people, and the amounts of funds available for the population through services. And since most of the funds came to Tunisia through exports to Europe, another clear connection can be drawn between how the European Union going forth in economic agreements while ignoring any effort to push for a more democratic system, and the reason Tunisia was somewhat economically well off.

This rationale directs to a conclusion that, had the EU not so greatly interacted with the Tunisian authoritarian government, an earlier dwindling of the economic situation would have come forth and thus possibly a revolution.
To analyze the “what ifs” of the past however can be a very vague and tedious process, and thus I will just state that criticism of the EU’s involvement with authoritarian regimes (not just Tunisia but states like Libya and Egypt as well) prior to the Arab Spring, as the set of uprisings is commonly referred to, did not go unnoticed. The people of Tunisia felt grateful for the support that they had received from European powers but were at the same time skeptical and critical of other actions countries in the EU had taken.

A Turning Point; the Arab Uprisings

The Arab uprisings that started in Tunisia can be seen as the start of great change in the countries affected and the region as a whole. The way in which states coordinated agreements with each other will not be the same.

During the days of Ben Ali the economy suffered greatly despite its vast potential. European states pushed forward economic activity in Tunisia, but that just fostered greater wealth for the ruling elite, leaving the rest of the country behind to continuously spiral into a worsening economic condition. High unemployment (especially among fresh graduates), rising cost of living, and poverty were all leading factors behind the peoples’ outcry against the corruption of their government. When the street vender resorted to self-emulation, and mass protests started to take place across the country, Ben Ali fled the country soon after. This clearly marked a turning point in Tunisia’s history, and in turn changes the way that international relations with the state will be taking place.

A photo from the Tunisian Uprising

A photo from the Tunisian Uprising

This in turn opened a new window for Tunisia to develop in many ways that it was previously being suppressed by. Political freedom, legitimate economic reforms, and the freedom of expression as well as many other human rights. These are all goals also available in the different agreements mentioned earlier between the EU and the Mediterranean, yet due to the constant lack of efforts put into these points it isn’t always to see what will make them more valid after the uprisings.

In fact many Tunisians don’t hesitate to criticize how the EU had interacted with Ben Ali. Not only relating to how the EU didn’t stiffen its relations with the authoritarian government when the lack of commitment for human rights was evident but also points such as when the French government authorized the sales of tear gas to the Tunisian Government as protests started to take place.[11]
Another way in which the Tunisians felt “hurt” by the actions of the European community was when during their “fight for freedom” the 20,000 refugees that had fled to Italy as economic migrants, as they were labeled by the Italians, resulted in an uproar of anti-migration fears and speech across Europe.[12] But despite this set of bad experiences with the Europeans Tunisians still have a rather positive attitude towards them, probably owing to their own close relation to Europe, especially their old protectorate France. “Tunisia has two doors, one leading towards Europe and the other towards the Arab world. Both sources of identity are equally important to Tunisians. Europe, by contrast, has limited understanding and knowledge of Tunisia”. [13] Quoting the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle. Despite their close feelings to European identity however the door to Europe can seem very shut to Tunisians. Therefore it is not a surprise that they have expressed strong hopes of being treated as more of an equally footing with the Europeans, calling for such rights as having free mobility on the European continent. But perhaps if the Europeans already see their future being in the “south” as President Sarkozy put it then the EU might want to work on keeping the citizens of Tunisia happy and overcome their “anti-migration” fears.

Spillover in the Mediterranean

Following the theory of neofuntionalism, that was founded on the model of the forming and successful integration of the European Union, it seems to me that the Mediterranean region will see an increased amount of integration over the next coming years.
Neofunctionalist theory was in part developed by Ernst Haas; Haas formulated an idea of a “spillover” effect. The spillover was a description of how an increasing amount of integration in one economic sector, would in turn spur the integration across other parts of the economy, and even start to create pressures for further integration in sectors other than the economy. Another idea of neofunctional theory is that interests, rather than shared ideas or common identities are the main cause for integration processes.[14]

With the understanding of these neofunctional points I will base the idea that, with the Arab uprising having settled down in Tunisia, a renewed interest has developed commonly for bettering the economic situation, and developing clean power, as well as a call by Tunisians to have more mobility to and in the EU. All of which lie under the framework of the Union for the Mediterranean goals that were mentioned earlier.

Despite the continuous efforts of institutional organizations to try and have integration across the Mediterranean region it was earlier argued that it had minimal success. Though the importance of regional institutions can in no way be cast aside, rather it seems to me that the way integration will take prime force in the region is more through the form of a spillover effect that neofunctionalism is based on. A spillover effect that I see starting with the demand for better transport, freedom of trade and movement, and a common source of power for the region.

Economic growth can be said to be the single most important driving force to move forward in integration. As the world is still far from recovered from the international financial crisis, it is not only the countries that hosted the “Arab Spring” that see a great need to improve their economic activities but also the European Union which is still struggling with the economic crisis. Increasing in amounts of trade and cross-nation investments might be enough to boost the European and Mediterranean region out of the recession.
The evidence of a common interest in pushing for economic growth is already evident by the fact that Tunisia has joined into a free trade agreement with the EU as part of a greater initiative to have a free trade area encompassing all the EU and Mediterranean area. But it is also evident that in order for there to be any real growth that helps the economy as a whole, unlike was the case for Tunisia despite its joining a free trade agreement with Europe, it has to be done in a responsible way.
Studies in a Sustainable Impact Assessment (SIA) of Euro Mediterranean Free Trade Area (EMFTA), which were done by independent consultants lead by the Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, tackle exactly that. In these studies, which started in 1999, assessed that free trade within and between the two regions can “help deliver large economic benefits” to both the European Union and Mediterranean Partner Countries. However the study states conditions for this economical growth; “but only if carried out as part of a comprehensive development strategy in each of the partner countries, in combination with measures to achieve fuller economic integration across the region as a whole.  In the absence of such strategic measures, in individual MPCs and regionally under the co-responsibility of the EU and MPCs, the economic benefits of the EMFTA can be small, and may be accompanied by adverse social and environmental effects.” [15]

The SIA does recognize the progress already made in free trade across the Mediterranean since the signing of the Barcelona Accord in 1995, but it also argues that in order to reach the full potential of these achievements a greater degree of interconnectivity and expansion must take place. This will not only lead to economic growth but also social and environmental development in the region, which are easily explained as a spillover effect. The SIA report goes on to mention that fuller regional integration would be a great platform for MPCs to adapt to globalization in a way that local businesses and society at large can benefit well, without any harm being done to the environment. But for that to happen the business sector and stakeholders from civil society must be involved in the challenging task of trade liberalization and economic integration (something that clearly didn’t happen during Ben Ali’s rule).

The future solar energy project EU-Tunisia

The future solar energy project EU-Tunisia

Another point as well to look where there is a lot of interest, especially on the European front is the development in solar energy for Europe.
Desertec is an foundation that plans to have solar power being harnessed from the sun across Northern Africa in the vast space of the Sahara Desert and transferred to Europe. The project in Tunisia goes under the name of TuNur and carbon free electricity is said to start flowing to Europe in 2016.
According to a press release found on the foundations website, “the project will focus on maximizing local value creation in Tunisia”. It goes on to explain how a new industry sector will be built up, with a focus of it being in the southern and inner parts of the country (where the economy is most struggling from underdevelopment). The total number of jobs to be created from the project as a whole is set at around 20,000 (Ironically the same number of people as were mention earlier as having been economic refugees fleeing to Italy). The project also promises to create a new manufacturing industry, seeing that many parts of the plant, such as the huge amounts of mirrors, can be produced locally. “We will keep a close eye on developments to ensure the socio-economic benefits for Tunisians are maximized,” are more promising words from the director of Desertec, Dr. Thiemo Gropp.[16]
This could be a new road for relations between Europe and Tunisia, seeing the same demands being met but this time through a “clean” process, environmentally and hopefully politically.


As I outlined, in short, the recent history of regional relationships that had formed mainly between the European Union and Mediterranean Partner Countries, it became obvious how much of a central role the EU had played in much of forming what little regionalism there is in along the Mediterranean.

By focusing on Tunisia it became clearer to understand why the European community would play such a key role in forming bilateral and multilateral agreements with its southern neighbors, despite many Mediterranean states not being run by governments legitimately representing their people.

Further into the text I backed the idea of why the Arab uprising is a turning point for how regionalization along the Mediterranean will be handled. How the EUs prioritizing on economic and security issues sacrificed their call for better rights of the nationals of their partner countries that were under authoritarian rule. Once the Arab uprisings saw authoritarian leaders being ousted, the European Union quickly changed their position to being part of the process of helping newly elected governments in nation building, though many Tunisians still saw reasons to criticizes their northern neighbors.

Once the past and present had been covered I conveyed my prediction under the political theory of neofuntionalism, stating that the way forward for the Mediterranean region is deepening integration between states as a spillover occurs. This spillover has already begun in Tunisia where a free trade agreement with the EU has recently been achieved. The spillover will mainly and firstly affect areas of transportation, and common development for sustainable energy, which will be followed by better development in the fields like human rights, good governance, and education.

To conclude my paper I will state that from what I can see the Arab uprisings, which happened in great part due to the worsening economic situation, locally and globally, did play a part in accelerating the regional integration of the Mediterranean. Once the old power structure collapsed it made way for the great need, which was expressed by the people, of countries like Tunisia for an increase in freedom of mobility. This in turn can be a trade off for the European interests in harnessing power in the Sahara desert, as well as achieving common goals of increasing trade along the whole Mediterranean. Countries under the rule of authoritarian leaders that have a tendency for corruption tend to be run inefficiently, but now that that barrier has been brought down in Tunisia it lets the country breathe and be innovative. This will hopefully lead to increase in development and integration with leading economies. It is not easy to tell how far or to what extent the spillover in development and integration will reach in Tunisia with the EU and its neighboring country. Will the Union for the Mediterranean become increasingly important as an identity begins to form? Will a common currency be started in the region, or the Euro adopted in non-European countries? It is not clear how far things will change, it is only clear that they will.

Desertec Foundation. Tunisian sun will light European homes by 2016. Press Release. Jan. 24, 2012. – http://www.desertec.org/press/press-releases/120124-01-desertec-foundation-tunisian-sun-will-light-european-homes-by-2016/
European Commission. Position Paper of the European Commission Services on the “Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) of the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area”. 2007.

Gianniou, Maria. Sarkozy’s Proposal for a Mediterranean Union. 2007.

Gjelevski, Blagoj. The DESERTEC Project and Its Impact on the EU Political Integration and Institutionalization.
Gray, Mathew. A Theory of “Late Rentierism” in the Arab States of the Gulf.Georgetown University. 2011.
Khakee, Anna. Tunisia’s democratisation: is Europe rising to the occasion?. Fride: A European Think Tank for Global Action. June 2011

Knoops, Vera. Euro-Mediterranean Relations and the Arab Spring. EU Centre in Singapore. Oct. 2011
Paciello, Maria Cristina. Tunisia: Changes and Challenges of Political Transition. MEDPRO Technical Report. May 2011

The World Factbook. Tunisia. Central Intelligence Agency. – https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html

[1]   Knoops, Vera. Euro-Mediterranean Relations and the Arab Spring. p. 4

[2]   Knoops, Vera. Euro-Mediterranean Relations and the Arab Spring. pp. 5-6

[3]    Knoops, Vera. Euro-Mediterranean Relations and the Arab Spring. p. 6

[4]    Knoops, Vera. Euro-Mediterranean Relations and the Arab Spring. p. 7

[5]    Gianniou, Maria. Sarkozy’s Proposal for a Mediterranean Union. p. 1

[6]     The World Factbook. Tunisia. Central Intelligence Agency.

[7]     The World Factbook. Tunisia. Central Intelligence Agency.

[8]     Paciello, Maria. Tunisia: Changes and Challenges of Poltical Transition. p. 4

[9]     Paciello, Maria. Tunisia: Changes and Challenges of Poltical Transition. pp. 4-5

[10]    Gray, Mathew. A Theory of “Late Rentierism” in the Arab States of the Gulf. p. 6

[11]   Khakee, Anna. Tunisia’s democratisation: is Europe rising to the occasion?. p. 1

[12]   Khakee, Anna. Tunisia’s democratisation: is Europe rising to the occasion?. p. 3

[13]   Khakee, Anna. Tunisia’s democratisation: is Europe rising to the occasion?. p. 5

[14]    Gjelevski, Blagoj. The DESERTEC Project and Its Impact on the EU Political Integration and Institutionalization. p. 312.

[15]    European Commission. Position Paper of the European Commission Services on the “Trade Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) of the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area”. pp. 2-3.

[16]    Desertec Foundation. Tunisian sun will light European homes by 2016.

Sergej Schellen

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