Italian Populist PM Giorgia Meloni Brokers EU Illegal Migrant Deal with Tunisia

Tunisian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Populist Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni led negotiations between the European Union and the North African nation of Tunisia leading to a landmark deal to prevent people smugglers from sending migrant boats across the Mediterranean.

Hailing the Memorandum of Understanding on migration signed by Brussels and Tunis on Sunday at the presidential palace in Carthage, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that the deal will serve as a “model for EU-North Africa relations” going forward.

The deal, which was brokered alongside EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, will reportedly see some 150 million euros be sent to prop up the Tunisian government’s budget in addition to a further 105 million to be spent on border control, Italy’s Il Giornale reported.

While the full financial accounting of the deal was not made public on Sunday, von der Leyen had previously expressed support for an aid package of around a billion euros to Tunisia. On top of financial assistance, the agreement also calls for increased cooperation in terms of energy between Tunisia and the EU, with the bloc continuing to look to replace Russian energy losses.

Since coming to power in October of last year, Meloni has placed heavy emphasis on improving ties with the regime of Tunisian Islamic strongman Kais Saied — who has previously declared he would be nobody’s coastguard — with the hopes of convincing the recalcitrant leader to clamp down illegal migration as an alternative to trying to persuade open borders advocates in Brussels to adopt a push back the boats approach.

The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on Sunday, therefore, represents a significant diplomatic victory for the new-look Italian leader, with the populist PM coming to power last year largely on promises to reduce illegal immigration.

Meloni has so far struggled to deliver on this promise in her first year in office, with illegal boat migration surging by 150 per cent this year to over 75,000. This has largely been driven by increased people-smuggler activity in Libya and Tunisia, with economic and political instability allowing for Sub-Saharan migrants to be ignored as they head for the coasts to flee for opportunities in Europe across the Mediterranean.

Illegal migration from Tunisia, specifically from the coasts of Sfax and Bizerte, has been a major driver of the increased flows of migrants across the Mediterranean this year.

Commenting on the deal, Tunisian President Kais Saied said that he hopes to implement the measures against the “criminal network of traffickers” as “soon as possible”.

“I have to thank you all and in particular Prime Minister Meloni for having responded immediately to the Tunisian initiative to organize a summit for all the countries concerned. Because the solution to this inhuman situation can only be common and in particular to address the causes before of the effects,” he said.

For her part, Meloni said: “We have achieved a very important goal which comes after a great deal of diplomatic work. The Memorandum is an important step towards creating a real partnership between the EU and Tunisia”. Meloni went on to say that the agreement should be considered “a model” for the EU to seek with other countries in North Africa.

It remains to be seen how effective the Tunisians will be in cracking down on the people smuggling networks that are operating within their country, however, an aspect of the deal that may be even more significant is that it might pave the way for the EU to recognise Tunisia as a “safe country”. This would mean that countries like Italy could deport any migrants who travelled through Tunisia’s borders back to the North African country, Yasmine Akrimi of the Brussels International Center told Al Jazeera.

“This is a new pathway that Europe is trying to implement in its relationship with Africa – specifically North Africa, which is the closest neighbour – and trying to police African migration and reshaping social dynamics in Tunisia and in North Africa more largely,” she said.

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