Members of the European Parliament denounced on Tuesday a new memorandum of understanding signed with Tunisia.
The deal was concluded 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.
The text, which still needs to be fleshed out, earmarks at least €700 million in EU funds, some as loans, across five thematic pillars: macro-economic stability, economy and trade, the green transition, people-to-people contacts and migration.
While von der Leyen hailed the memorandum as a "strategic and comprehensive partnership," MEPs took a highly critical view on the matter, branding it as a contradiction between the European Union's core values and Tunisia's continued democratic backsliding. They also lamented an absence of democratic transparency and financial accountability.
The figure of Kais Saied, a man who has openly spread racist narratives against black African migrants in a manner that echoes the far-right conspiracy theory known as the "great replacement," was subject to furious censure from lawmakers.
"It's very clear: a deal has been made with a dictator who's cruel, who's unreliable," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch MEP who sits with the liberal Renew Europe group. "President Saied is an authoritarian ruler, he's not a good partner, (he's) a dictator who's actually boosted the number of departures."
Speaking on behalf of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), Birgit Sippel accused the Tunisian authorities of abandoning Sub-Saharan migrants in the desert "without food, water or anything else," a pattern of behaviour that has been previously reported by media and humanitarian organisations.
"Why should Tunisia suddenly change its behaviour? And who is controlling for what purpose the money will be spent?" Sippel said, looking visibly angry.
"We are now again financing an autocrat without political, democratic scrutiny here in the house. This will not be a solution. It will strengthen an autocrat in Tunisia," she added.
Facing the grilling was Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for home affairs, who steered away from any controversies and calmly defended the EU-Tunisia memorandum, which, she underlined, introduces obligations on both sides.
"It's clear that Tunisia is under pressure. In my view, this is a reason to strengthen and deepen the cooperation and step up the support to Tunisia," Johansson told MEPs.
According to Johansson, this year has so far seen 45,000 asylum seekers leaving Tunisia to attempt to cross the "very deadly route" of the Central Mediterranean. This "huge increase," she said, suggests a shift in Tunisia's role, from country of origin to country of transit, given that "out of these 45,000, only 5,000 were Tunisian citizens."
"It's very important that our main objective always must be to save lives, to prevent people from going on these journeys that too often end by ending their lives, this is a priority," the Commissioner added.
Money was another source of friction during Tuesday's hearing.
Lawmakers honed in on the two financial envelopes that are most central to the deal: €150 million for budget support and €105 million for migration management, both of which will be disbursed gradually. Some MEPs portrayed the budget support, which is supposed to sustain the country's precarious economy, as a cash injection to Saied's private coffers that would be impossible to track down.
"You have financed a dictator who flouts human rights, who tramples on the Tunisian democracy that we have supported so much. Don't lie to us!" Mounir Satouri, from the Greens, told Johansson. "According to our analyses, the €150 and €105 million are an aid to the (Tunisian) Treasury, a direct payment into the bank account of Mr Kais Saied."
Maria Arena, from the socialists, excoriated the European Commission for failing to add additional provisions that would make payments conditional on the respect for human rights. (Senior EU officials have said the memorandum does not contain extra guarantees besides the traditional clauses of other foreign aid programmes.)
"We are giving a blank cheque to Mr Saied, who is currently running racist, xenophobic campaigns, supported by his police and military," Arena said, in a blistering attack.
"Do you really believe that Mr Saied, who has dismissed his parliament, who has thrown judges in jail, who has resigned half his jurisdiction, who is now banning bloggers from talking about the migration issue and who is now using his police and military to send people back to the (Libyan) border, do you really believe that Mr Saied is going to respect human rights? Ms Johansson, either you're naïve or you're just telling us stories."
In her replies, Johansson insisted the €105 million earmarked for migration would be "mainly" channelled through international organisations that work on the ground and provide relief to asylum seekers, like the International Organization for Migration (IOM), although she conceded some funds would be, in fact, provided to the Tunisian guards in the form of search-and-rescue vessels and radars.
"Let me stress: the European Commission, the EU, we are not involved in any pushbacks of any third-country nationals to their country of origin. What we're doing is financing via IOM the voluntary returns and reintegration of third-country nationals," Johansson said.
"I do not agree with the description that Tunisia is blackmailing. I think we have good cooperation with Tunisia but it's also important to strengthen this cooperation and to step up the support for Tunisia. And this is the aim of this memorandum of understanding."