Following weeks of intense negotiations, the European Union and Tunisia have finally signed a memorandum of understanding covering topics ranging from migration to economic cooperation.
The deal was unveiled on Sunday after a meeting in Tunis between Tunisian President Kais Saied and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was joined by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
"In times of geopolitical uncertainties, it is important to deepen cooperation with our strategic partners," von der Leyen said, without taking any questions from the press.
The memorandum's official presentation had been preceded by a flurry of speculation and media reports over how much taxpayers' money the European Union, a staunch supporter of human rights, would be willing to disburse to Tunisia, whose government has been repeatedly accused – including by the European Parliament– of cracking down on freedom of expression, judicial independence and civil society.
President Saied, in particular, has been criticised for steering the country back into authoritarianism and spreading racist claims against African migrants using talking points that echo the great replacement, the far-right (and baseless) conspiracy theory that proclaims elites are actively replacing native populations with black people.
Said drew a stark rebuke from the United Nations after he alleged in February that "hordes of illegal migrants" arriving from Sub-Saharan countries were part of a "criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape of Tunisia" and were the source "of violence, unacceptable crimes and practices."
But on Sunday, von der Leyen, Rutte and Meloni glossed over the controversy and, following the motto of "the end justifies the means," took a pragmatic approach to tackling one of the EU's most pressing dilemmas: migration.
Here's everything we know so far.
What's in the memorandum?
On paper, the memorandum of understanding is a declaration of political intentions made jointly by the European Union and Tunisia to improve their bilateral relations and address common challenges in a "strategic and comprehensive" manner.
The text is not binding and does not create any obligations in and of itself. However, it presents a series of action plans that will be gradually fleshed out, turned into legal instruments and approved by member states before being implemented.
The plans are split into five thematic pillars: macro-economic stability, economy and trade, the green transition, people-to-people contacts and migration.
Each category features different investment and cooperation projects, many of which will involve the direct disbursement of funds from the common EU budget.
How much money is foreseen?
The memorandum is vague on financial figures, which could change according to developments on the ground, but some preliminary numbers have already emerged.
One of them is €150 million, the amount of money the EU intends to provide as budgetary support for the Tunisian government, which has for the past years struggled to rein in its public finances.
The country is considered to be on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of the devastating havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, a worldwide swell in commodity prices, high unemployment and an exodus of foreign investment caused by continued democratic backsliding.
Brussels fears the free-falling economy might soon collapse and further exacerbate Tunisia's internal instability, pushing people out of the country and towards the bloc's external borders.
The €150-million envelope is meant to avoid that worst-case scenario and ensure the Tunisian government has enough liquidity to ensure the provision of basic services and lay the groundwork for economic reforms.
Additionally, the memorandum foresees €307.6 million for the development of ELMED, a transmission line between Tunisia and Italy to trade low-cost renewable electricity, and up to €150 million for the construction of Medusa, a submarine cable that will use optical fibre technology to connect 11 Mediterranean countries.
These projects will combine grants from the EU budget and loans provided by the European Investment Bank (EIB), meaning some sums will have to be paid back.
What about migration?
This is definitely the crux of the matter.
Tunisia, together with Libya, is considered one of the main gateways for asylum seekers who wish to reach European shores. Some of these migrants are Tunisian nationals who flee the country's repressive policies, but others come from faraway places such as Egypt, Côte d'Ivoire, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Due to its geographic proximity, Italy represents, in the vast majority of cases, the first destination point for the thousands of migrants who every month attempt to cross the dangerous Mediterranean route, often after having paid an exorbitant amount of money to board an overcrowded boat with squalid conditions.
According to Frontex, last year saw more than 102,000 illegal border crossings through the Central Mediterranean, a 51% rise compared to 2021. Italy is struggling to cope with this surge in arrivals and has declared a state of emergency to deploy extra resources.
This is why migration is a key pillar in the memorandum, with an initial allocation of €105 million to combat anti-smuggling operations, reinforce border management and speed up the return of asylum seekers whose applications are denied.
The money will be provided to the Tunisian authorities in the form of search-and-rescue boats, jeeps, radars, drones and other types of patrolling equipment, and to international organisations that work on the ground, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
But the disbursement of the funds will not be linked to any numerical target of annual readmissions or reduction of arrivals; and it will not have additional human rights provisions on top of the traditional clauses the EU attaches to its foreign aid programmes, despite mounting evidence of pushbacks and violent treatment against black migrants.
"We don't wire money to authorities to do as they please," said a senior EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to defend the memorandum's most sensitive aspects. "This is not a blank cheque at all."
The senior official insisted Tunisia would only be expected to accept the return of its own nationals – not of the thousands of asylum seekers who travel through the country in a bid to reach the bloc, something which will be done on a voluntary basis with IOM and UNCHR support. Similarly, Tunisia will not be asked to host in its territory other nationalities that have been denied a chance to seek refuge in the bloc.
"Tunisia is not foreseen to be a collecting point for irregular migrants," the official said, recalling a similar statement previously made by the Tunisian government.
In parallel, the EU will strive to make it easier for highly-skilled Tunisians to move to the bloc for work through legal pathways and so-called "talent partnerships." Germany, France and Belgium have already offered 300 positions as part of this initiative, the official said, with a goal to get to 700 by the end of the year.
Could there be more money in the pipeline?
Yes, there could be, but it all depends on the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As a complement to the over €700 million that has already been earmarked, Brussels is willing to put on the table a substantial envelope of macro-financial assistance to fortify Tunisia's fragile economy and prevent the situation from spiralling out of control.
Ursula von der Leyen said last month the bloc was ready to supply "up to €900 million" in this regard but when she spoke on Sunday, she avoided specific figures.
"We remain ready to support Tunisia by mobilising macro-financial assistance as soon as the necessary conditions are met," von der Leyen said.
The conditions refer to ongoing talks between Tunis and the IMF around a 48-month loan agreement worth $1.9 billion, or €1.69 billion. The deal, as proposed by the IMF in October, introduces significant reforms, including on SMEs, taxation, state subsidies, transparency, governance and climate change, in exchange for the money.
The conditions were later denounced by President Saied as "foreign diktats that will lead to more poverty," thrusting the loan into bureaucratic limbo. Brussels, who, like Rome, had high hopes for the IMF process, believes the signing of the memorandum will inject the momentum that is missing to wrap up the negotiations.
Only when the loan is set up and ready to go will the EU move forward with its own macro-financial assistance. The last time the bloc offered a programme of this kind to Tunisia was in May 2020, when the European Parliament and the Council approved a €600-million envelope in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.