The European Commission has confirmed it has transferred €60 million in budget support to the Tunisian government, despite President Kais Saied publicly saying he rejects the "charity" money.
The disbursement is part of a €127-million financial envelope announced last month, building upon the memorandum of understanding signed between the European Union and Tunisia in mid-July.
The funds are split into two stands: €60 million to buttress Tunisia's struggling economy and nearly €67 million to reinforce border management and prevent the departure of migrant vessels.
Saied, who is known for making controversial comments, rebuffed on Tuesday the EU's €127-million offer, saying it was "derisory" and contrary to the memorandum.
"Tunisia, which accepts cooperation, does not accept anything resembling charity or favour, because our country and our people do not want sympathy and do not accept it when it is without respect," Saied said, according to a press release from the presidency.
"Consequently, Tunisia refuses what has been announced in recent days by the EU."
The blunt remarks were widely covered by the media and caused surprise in Brussels, where the memorandum with Tunisia has been touted as a blueprint for future agreements with neighbouring countries to stem migration flows.
On Wednesday, the European Commission attempted to set the record straight and confirmed that €60 million in budgetary support had been paid to Tunisia without any indication of refusal or refund.
"We can confirm that earlier this week, the Commission has indeed processed the payment of €60 million in grants to the Tunisian treasury following a request from the Tunisian government on the 31st of August," said Ana Pisonero, the European Commission spokesperson for neighbourhood and enlargement.
The request made by the Tunisian government centred exclusively on the €60 million that was later transferred, the spokesperson explained. The cash, however, does not come from the funds promised under the memorandum but from a previously approved plan for post-coronavirus recovery.
"We've taken note of the communiqué by the Tunisian presidency. I think that you will obviously understand that the EU conducts its relations with partners through direct contacts and that's exactly what we're doing," Pisonero told reporters.
Regarding the €67 million earmarked for migration management, the spokesperson said €13 million and €8 million had been contracted with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), respectively, to assist with the "voluntary returns" of migrants to their countries of origin.
"There's no deadline. We're trying to work as fast as possible on the ground to deliver on all the points and all the sectors that are covered by the memorandum. Of course, this is done in close cooperation with the Tunisian authorities," Pisonero said.
The row over Saied's comments is the latest setback in what has so far been a difficult implementation of the memorandum of understanding, which is barely four months old.
Ever since its signature, the agreement has been the target of intense criticism from the European Parliament and humanitarian organisations, who have raised the alarm about the abuses allegedly committed by the Tunisian authorities against sub-Saharan migrants, including instances of collective expulsions to the Libyan border.
Last month, the European Ombudsman formally asked for clarifications about the memorandum and the inclusion, or lack thereof, of additional safeguards to guarantee full respect of human rights.
Saied has been strongly condemned for his racist views of black Africans, whom he has described as being part of a "criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape of Tunisia." Further criticism was piled on Saied after he denied entry to five Members of the European Parliament and, weeks later, postponed an official visit of a delegation of the European Commission.