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Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential
Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential

Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.

Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble. Hopes that the country’s post-uprising leadership would successfully tackle its myriad of political and socio-economic challenges have started to dim. The economy is in the doldrums and the political leadership is increasingly split between Islamists and non-Islamists, both competing for control of state resources. This confluence of problems is stirring a general crisis of confidence in the political elite, and there is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.

As Tunisia’s main trading partner, and in the context of its European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU should:

  • Continue its macro-financial assistance despite the government’s slow pace in implementing necessary reforms (eg, pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate and greater fiscal transparency, among others);
     
  • Encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reforms, introduce greater transparency in public-sector appointments and transfers, and establish clear rules governing relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that can help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists;
     
  • Encourage parliament to reach agreement on creating a politically diverse Constitutional Court to ensure its independence;
     
  • Resist attempts to restore an authoritarian regime by, for example, conditioning continued financial support to Tunisia on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.
     

An Ailing Economy and Polarisation at the Top

The economy is faring poorly. The Tunisian dinar has depreciated by more than 40 per cent in relation to the euro since 2016, reducing purchasing power, while inflation stands at 8 per cent annually. As a result, the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016, driving households into debt. Regional disparities are growing, and unemployment remains dire. These factors combined have accelerated both a brain drain and capital flight.

These economic troubles occur at a time of severe tensions between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which have grown over the past two years. Their rivalry has laid bare an old rift between Islamists (mainly the An-Nahda party) and anti-Islamists (represented by Nida Tounes, the president’s party), with Chahed, who originally hails from Nida Tounes relying on the Islamist bloc’s parliamentary dominance to remain in office.

An-Nahda has been in coalition governments since 2011, but from 2016 onward, when Chahed became head of a national unity government, the party has worked hard to strengthen its power by placing a growing number of its supporters in senior posts in the public administration, state-owned companies and government offices and agencies in the capital and provinces. In doing so, it is changing in its favour the composition of patronage networks controlling state resources and access to credit, private monopolies and oligopolies. Over time, this inevitably will reduce the economic predominance of coastal northern Tunisia over the southern hinterland.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists.

In May 2018, An-Nahda made headway in local elections. It won 28 per cent of municipal council seats (against 20 per cent for Nida Tounes), including in all the main cities. The next month, it took charge of the administration in 36 per cent of all municipalities (compared with 22 per cent for Nida Tounes). This partial victory boosted the party’s political weight, altered the balance of power vis-à-vis its principal opponent, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and anti-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. By this unwritten agreement, An-Nahda had accepted less power than its electoral weight would suggest it should have, with just three ministries, none a major one; it had also agreed not to interfere with the established patronage networks, for example by placing its backers in senior executive positions.

Its electoral show of strength triggered a response from an inchoate coalition of senior figures in government, business and professional associations and trade unions, as well as far-left activists and Arab nationalists. They started to pressure the interior and justice ministries to classify the Islamist party as a terrorist organisation, and on the military courts to dissolve it and imprison some of its leaders. They also began reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in hopes of soliciting these two countries’ support against An-Nahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a leading intellectual figure among the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, their staunch enemy. The resurfacing of this rift invites a return to Tunisian politics of political competition that has dominated the Middle East and North Africa region since 2013 – between Turkey and Qatar, representing the Islamist bloc, on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It also would significantly heighten political and social tensions ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year, which could well prove decisive in shaping the country’s political and economic complexion for the next decade. Because of a split in the secularist camp, An-Nahda’s enduring popularity among large sectors of the population and its dominance of governing institutions, the party remains the favourite to win at least the parliamentary elections. Even were this scenario to pass, the Islamists’ power could be circumscribed. It will need to cobble together a governing coalition, and optimally will be willing once again to forgo key ministries and maintain its tacit agreement with the anti-Islamists. An-Nahda’s influence would be further curbed were it to put up a presidential candidate and loose.

However, other scenarios are possible. If tensions come to a head before the elections, violence could get in the way of the electoral process. This could prompt the president to declare a state of emergency, as provided for under the constitution, but without additional constitutional checks, this could put Tunisia back on the path of autocratic rule. For this reason, it is critical that the parliament establish a Constitutional Court, which would adjudicate whether the state of emergency can be extended thirty days after its entry into force. The court should have a politically diverse composition that might help to prevent it from endorsing such a move. Indeed, under this scenario, the absence of a Constitutional Court could plunge Tunisia into dangerous waters.

An EU Role in Preventing a Dangerous Backsliding

The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner and has provided important financial support to the country (between 2011 and 2017, EU assistance to Tunisia amounted to € 2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance). It has a clear interest in protecting Tunisia’s stability, to fortify one of the only – if not the only – success story to emanate from the Arab uprisings, dampen the appeal of jihadism to Tunisians, and limit illegal migration to Europe. It follows that, despite the disappointing pace of economic and political reforms (pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate, greater fiscal transparency, advancing negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, creating the Constitutional Court and replacing four members of the Independent High Authority for Elections so that this body can move forward with organising the legislative and presidential elections of late 2019), the EU should continue to provide macro-economic support to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.

In addition, it should encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reform, render public-sector appointments and transfers more transparent, and introduce clear rules governing its relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that, by reducing the role of partisan patronage would help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It should also encourage political parties to reach agreement in parliament about the composition of the Constitutional Court, thus enabling its establishment. And it should use its influence to counterbalance any domestic or externally-inspired effort to restore an authoritarian regime by making continued financial support to Tunisia conditional on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential

Originally published in Peace Lab

The European Union has put instruments and tools in place to improve its early warning mechanisms. Member states must now work with EU institutions to make them more effective. One concrete step that Germany could take is to push the new EU leadership to regularly put countries ‘at risk’ on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council.

The European Union has always been stronger at reacting to crises than predicting or preventing them. On too many occasions the EU was lacking strategic foresight to anticipate major developments that impacted its internal and external policies. The widespread protests and their repercussions during the Arab Spring or Russia’s annexation of Crimea were as much a surprise to most European leaders and EU institutions as to other international actors, leaving them with no better options than to scramble for crisis management solutions since it was too late for preventive measures that might have had lower costs and better outcomes.   

The EU’s Early Warning System ensures higher awareness of structural risks

Aware of these shortcomings, the EU has invested more resources in its early warning and early response capacities. The European External Action Service (EEAS) has put in place its own Early Warning System in 2014. In the EU’s own words, this system is a “tool for EU decision-makers to manage risk factors and prioritize resources accordingly.” The Division in charge of the Integrated Approach for Security and Peace (ISP) within the EEAS leads this process. Every year it works with other EU institutions to identify a number of countries ‘at risk’ with a time horizon of four years. The analysis is based on a wide range of quantitative and qualitative information from internal and external sources. This includes a Global Conflict Risk Index elaborated by the EU’s Joint Research Center which evaluates quantitative indicators in social, economic, security, political, geographical and environmental dimensions. This is complemented by intelligence-based analysis from the EU’s Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity as well as qualitative input from an EU staff review and expert country analysis. The resulting list of countries ‘at risk’ is presented to the EU member states’ ambassadors in the Political and Security Committee, before EU institutions undertake a comprehensive conflict analysis and develop concrete objectives for early action. 

This Early Warning System, in combination with flexible financial tools, especially the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), and better intra-institutional coordination allows the EU to be more aware of structural risks of conflict around the world and have mechanisms and tools at hand to respond before the outbreak of a crisis.

When strategic national interests are at stake, it becomes more difficult for member states to agree on a joint analysis, let alone joint action.

While this is all well and good in theory, the practice can sometimes pose challenges to this system, especially when it has to face (geo-) political realities. When EU member states have different views on the analysis of the countries ‘at risk’ or on preventive measures, this comes to the forefront. Even though they do not decide on the final list of countries identified by the Early Warning System, their buy-in is critical to ensure effective early action. When strategic national interests are at stake, it becomes more difficult for member states to agree on a joint analysis, let alone joint action. A member state that has important (or sensitive) relations with a country on the list can have an interest in blocking political or diplomatic action at the European level. It suffices to look at the Libyan example – not an early warning country, but a telling case – to see how diverging views and strategies among member states can paralyze the EU’s abilities to prevent the escalation of a crisis.

To ensure that the information gained from the EU’s Early Warning System is translated into policy despite diverging views and interests, EU member states, including Germany, can push for collective action in three areas:  

Fostering joint analysis among the EU and member states

Firstly, a regular involvement of member states in the Early Warning System and follow-up work is important. While diverging approaches to the list of countries ‘at risk’ are understandable – there is not always an obvious solution to fend off a crisis and there are limits to EU influence – it is all the more important to have a mechanism for reconciling competing views and identifying the best path forward. Both the EU and several member states have already taken steps in this direction. The EU for instance involves member state embassies in the conflict analysis they undertake in-country. Germany and the Netherlands, which both have their own national early warning systems, initiated a European Early Warning Forum that allows European governments to engage with EU institutions twice a year on the list of countries ‘at risk’.

However, there is room for more regular informal exchanges to ensure the buy-in from member states throughout the process. EU institutions should find additional ways to take member state views and inputs into account, and all 28 national governments need to actively use these opportunities to share information and ideas. Germany could work on both ends of this process, by engaging with the EU to explore creative ways to involve member states and by encouraging the latter to contribute their analysis and expertise.

Bringing early warning countries onto the political agenda

Drawing and maintaining the attention of politicians and high-level policy makers to countries that appear ‘calm’ remains a challenge.

Secondly, even with an early warning list at hand, the focus ultimately tends to remain on managing ongoing crises, with a particular emphasis on member states’ strategic interests. Drawing and maintaining the attention of politicians and high-level policy makers to countries that appear ‘calm’ remains a challenge.

An important step could therefore be a clear commitment by the incoming High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to pay specific attention to the countries identified by the Early Warning System and to rally member states behind common preventive action. Germany should incentivize this by proposing to add one of those countries as an agenda item to the Foreign Affairs Council, where ongoing crises usually dominate the debate among European foreign ministers. Germany can also host informal high-level discussions on early warning countries in Brussels to foster debates around preventive action.

Preserving important early action tools

Finally, during the upcoming negotiations for the new EU budget for 2021-2027, member states and EU institutions should make sure that the achievements that have been made over the past years will be preserved, specifically when it comes to flexible funding of rapid reaction and long-term preventive approaches. The proposed Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) would channel the EU’s specialized funding instruments, such as the IcSP, into one single tool. Even though the NDICI proposal foresees specific pillars for Stability and Peace as well as Rapid Response, ongoing negotiations between the EU, member states and the European Parliament could result in an over-emphasis of short-term crisis management support at the expense of long-term preventive and peace-building action.

As these budget negotiations will most likely be finalized under the German Council Presidency in the second half of 2020, Germany will have an important role in fending off attempts to cut or dilute budget commitments in this field.

All this shows that the full potential of the EU’s Early Warning System, while an important tool for increasing Europe’s awareness and joint understanding of conflict risks, is not yet being fully utilized. A higher level of political support by both EU institutions and member states might help the EU use it to better effect and become more effective in its early response to brewing crises. In recent years, Europe has seen and felt the impact of deadly conflicts around the world, several of them right at its doorstep. It should therefore be in the strategic and humanitarian interest of all member states to prevent further escalation or outbreak of violence and resulting shocks to regional stability. Member states have given the EU a clear mandate to increase awareness of conflict risks. Now that instruments and tools have been put in place, member states should work with EU institutions to make them more effective.