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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR)
News article30 April 2015Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations8 min read

Speech at the Bertelsmann conference regarding EU-Tunisia relations in the framework of the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here in Tunis for this important conference. My decision to visit Tunisia so soon after the ministerial meeting with our southern partners in Barcelona reflects the...


Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here in Tunis for this important conference. My decision to visit Tunisia so soon after the ministerial meeting with our southern partners in Barcelona reflects the importance that I attach to our partnership. Let me take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the constructive role that Tunisia played in making the Barcelona meeting such a success.

We have a long standing relationship dating back to the late-sixties, when we signed our first cooperation agreement. Since then, we have strengthened our close relations, notably in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

Tunisia is a shining demonstration that dignity, freedom and democracy can be the future of this region. There has been remarkable progress in democratic transition since 2011, and Tunisians know only too well that there is still a long way to go to make sure these achievements are irreversible. The terrible events at the Bardo museum were a chilling reminder of how fragile a transition can be.

Nevertheless, the resolve of the Tunisian people for change requires the consolidation of democracy, primarily through the implementation of the new Constitution. In addition, it is imperative that the major security and socio-economic challenges that the country is facing are addressed.

Since 2011 the European Union has been a major supporter of these efforts. We are determined to further strengthen our cooperation in all areas. What we call our Privileged Partnership should develop to use the full potential of our relationship wherever it can benefit Tunisians and Europeans alike.

Since its launch in 2004, the European Neighbourhood Policy has achieved results, but it has also shown its limitations. There is widespread recognition across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in the East, that we need to refresh our engagement.

This is why President Juncker asked me, in close co-operation with High Representative Mogherini, to take stock of the ENP and suggest a way forward within the first 12 months of my mandate.

We have invited our partners, along with EU Member States and partner organisations, to contribute to this consultation (which will continue until the end of June). We want a discussion that is frank and open, in order to truly build a better ENP. Tunisia’s contribution is particularly valuable given its exemplary performance.

You discussed this process in detail earlier, so I will just recall the key elements.

The consultation focuses on four priorities:

First: what can we do increase the scope for differentiation in the way we work with our partners? We need to do more to recognise that our partners are very diverse. Not just in terms of the east and south, but within the east and within the south. The aim is to achieve a different kind of relationship on the basis of the needs and the political will of the partner countries. Clearly, in view of the level Tunisia's alignment with EU values, Tunisia already is a special partner.

The second key point is ownership. We want to develop a real partnership of equals.

The third point is about focusing on where the real interests of each country lie. Five areas of common interests for the EU and its partners have already been identified: trade and economic development; connectivity; security; governance; mobility and migration.

Specifically on the issue of migration, I welcome the European Council's statement last week that the EU will mobilise all efforts at our disposal to prevent further loss of life at sea and to tackle the root causes of the human emergency that we face, in cooperation with the countries of origin and transit. I would also add that I welcome the increase of emergency aid to frontline EU Member States to assist in tackling this unprecedented challenge.

Irregular migration, and by this, I mean the smuggling of people, also needs to be tackled and this must go hand in hand with a greater promotion of legal and labour migration and mobility, especially by exploiting the full potential of mobility partnerships.

Finally, as regard the fourth priority of the ENP review consultation process, we need to be more flexible: this means being able to react to changing circumstances, and crises as and when they arise, including with our financial instruments.

We want this process to be completely inclusive, and the participation of civil society is key in this regard. In Tunisia more than anywhere else, civil society has played a crucial role in ensuring a peaceful, democratic transition; they are essential partners in every aspect of our relationship and should remain so.

In fact I met a group of civil society representatives yesterday and we had a very engaged discussion on the prospects and challenges being experienced in Tunisia. The insight they gave me is priceless.

Decentralisation is also a major challenge for the country. From the public administration perspective, the closer the decision-making is to citizens and businesses, the better it can support initiatives and creativity within its remit.

Following my experience as Commissioner for Regional Policy, I have great respect for the way Tunisia wants to invest in regional development. This was discussed in Brussels last month at the EU-Tunisia Association Council. The European Commission is now working on the best ways to support this objective.

A key element is public administration reform which plays a fundamental role in strengthening competitiveness and stimulating investment to create growth and jobs.

Immediately after the 2011 revolution, the European Union substantially reviewed its approach to Tunisia and the wider neighbourhood. Today it is clear that Tunisia is the success story of these upheavals. It is our responsibility – and our interest – to accompany Tunisian efforts to build a democratic Tunisia that can improve the life of its people, inspire others and continue to promote stability and peace in the region. The European Union, together with our Member States, has a variety of useful tools.

Financial and technical cooperation can contribute to supporting key reforms and sustainable solutions developed by Tunisia.

Between 2011 and 2014, Tunisia has received 800 million euros in grants through different instruments and has been the number one beneficiary of the "more for more" approach every year since 2011.

Moreover, a macro financial assistance loan for a total amount of 300 million euros was ratified by the Tunisian authorities and the first tranche of 100 million euros is being disbursed.

The main sectors of cooperation with Tunisia are:

1. socio-economic reforms for inclusive growth, competitiveness & integration;

2. strengthening fundamental elements of democracy; and

3. sustainable regional and local development.

I believe our approach in developing closer economic and trade ties is the right one. It is our intention to adapt to Tunisia's needs and priorities in negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which I hope can start shortly. I am aware of concerns raised by various Tunisian stakeholders with regards to this Agreement, as well as on the Mobility Partnership. Let me assure you that while we want to move our partnership to a higher level, we will make every effort to ensure that this will be done at your own pace and with full respect for your needs.

Tunisia is full of young, highly educated people striving for dynamic prospects, fresh initiatives and hope for the future. The democratic project that Tunisia is so carefully building, will only succeed if their hopes and aspirations are met. And one of the most important of those aspirations is to have fulfilling employment.

We know too well, that without a thriving private sector, it is impossible to create sustainable and quality jobs. I had the opportunity to discuss this with representatives from the private sector in the Euro-Mediterranean region just a few days ago in Barcelona, at an event organised by the Union for the Mediterranean and the European Commission, where I shared the podium with the former Prime Minister of Tunisia, Mehdi Joma'a.

I see at least three basic conditions necessary for the private sector to thrive:

-clear and simple rules for doing business;

-access to finance at affordable rates; and

-an adequately skilled labour force.

The EU is assisting Tunisia on all these aspects, through our cooperation and Macro Financial Assistance.

Tunisia is a major candidate for the more-for-more or umbrella funds, which reward the partner countries that have accomplished the biggest reform efforts and demonstrated the intention to intensify their relations to the EU.

The amount for 2015 has not been defined yet, but I can assure you that it will be significant.Beyond financing, we want to promote an even closer relationship across the board, through our sectorial policies.

There are a number of EU programmes which could benefit Tunisian citizens just as they benefit Europeans – for example Horizon 2020 in research, on which we are very close to delivering a positive response to Tunisia's request to participate.

Another opportunity is the programme for the Competitiveness of Enterprises and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (COSME). Moreover, excellent higher education exchange programmes are available, and we should explore ways for Tunisian youth to participate even more. We are also working on expanding the scholarship opportunities for Tunisian students and opening EU programmes to Tunisian institutions and operators, both public and private.EU trade policy, while promoting a DCFTA, also offers the possibility to promote Tunisian strategic sectors, as we did earlier this year on olive oil quotas.These are illustrations of how we can find ways to support Tunisia with tailor-made measures responding to your specific needs. And we are determined to continue on this path.

While thanking the Bertelsmann Foundation for organising this excellent event, I thank you for your attention.