Pivotal role: Democratisation opens up new opportunities for economic and diplomatic cooperation

Since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia has not only developed at the domestic level, but also in terms of its external relations. While the popular upheaval helped reshape the region by inspiring the Arab Spring – for better and worse – the country’s flourishing civil society and growing participation in international organisations has supported stronger relations with both traditional and new partners. Tunisia has a long-standing diplomatic network, having long been active in regional and international bodies such as the UN, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the African Union. In addition, the country had a total of 58 embassies and 72 consulates globally, as of mid-2019.

European Ties

Tunisia has held special political and economic relations with the EU since the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU in 1995. These relations were further consolidated with the establishment of the EU’s Southern Neighbourhood Policy in March 2003 – which sought greater integration and deeper diplomatic ties with the countries of the Maghreb. These relations have, however, deepened as a result of Tunisia’s transition to democracy.

Financial contributions from the EU have risen substantially as a result of these deeper ties, with a total of €2.4bn being allocated to Tunisia between 2011 and 2017, of which €1.6bn were disbursed in the form of grants and €800m in the form of macro-financial assistance. Much of this has been channelled towards the improvement of the Tunisian economy, youth employment, security and other areas. Cooperation is set to continue for the 2017-20 period, with the EU allocating between €504m and €616m to help with improving employment, governance and the rule of law, along with regional development.

Renewed Bonds 

In addition to its closer links with the EU as a whole, Tunisia has also enhanced individual cooperation with European nations. Due to their historic links, France remains a key partner. As of 2018 as much as 30% of Tunisian exports went to France, while 15% of all of Tunisian imports came from the former colonial power.

Meanwhile, about 1300 French companies were present in Tunisia in 2018, according to the French government. In early 2018 French President Emmanuel Macron visited Tunisia and promised to continue supporting the country in its democratic transition. In addition, France has converted €90m of Tunisian debt into development projects, including the construction of a new hospital in Gafsa.

African Links 

If political changes have allowed Tunisia to benefit from closer cooperation with its EU neighbours, taking full advantage of its privileged geographical position will require it to cement its diplomatic and trade ties with its southern partners. Tunisia is well positioned to increase its cooperation with African economies, especially at a time when many sub-Saharan countries have been experiencing high levels of economic growth.

An important move towards improving trade relations with the continent has been through its increasing engagement with the political and economic union ECOWAS. In November 2017 the country gained observer status of the bloc and in July 2018 it became a formal member. Upon joining Tunisia set itself the ambitious goal of exporting up to $4bn in goods to fellow ECOWAS members by 2020, according to international media reports. In addition, Tunisia was also one of the initial co-signers of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement – which aims to increase intra-African commercial exchanges by creating a continent-wide trade bloc. Members have committed to removing tariffs on 90% of goods in the initial draft deal, leaving an additional 10% of products for later negotiations. Regionally, Tunisia has continued to focus on its immediate neighbours in North Africa and the broader Middle East. Indeed, in March 2019 Tunis hosted the Arab League Summit.