Calls to “Block” Tunisia-EU Trade Deal Get Louder

Main photo: An political cartoon by artist Tawfiq Omrane commenting on ALECA, a new Tunisia-EU trade deal under negotiation, featured in a glossy advocacy booklet published by the Economic and Social Research Association Mohamed Ali Hammi (ARES) and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung North Africa Office, April 2019, Meshkal news team

Calls to “Block” Tunisia-EU Trade Deal Get Louder

Monday May 20, 2019

Tunis – Fadil Aliriza

A typical panel discussion began in Tunis on the morning of Tuesday, April 30th. On one end of the room, panelists at a desk took turns giving presentations while dozens of people sitting in rows of chairs facing them listened quietly. This familiar scene was disrupted when a group of protesters in the back rows stood up and began singing to the tune of the anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao.” The lyrics were the protesters’ own, written especially for the occasion and including most prominently “ALECA is neocolonialism.” Several audience members began to use their cellphones to film the protesters, who sang, chanted, and carried homemade signs for around five minutes before leaving the room. One cellphone video recorded and shared to Facebook by the protesters themselves would later be watched nearly 70,000 times according to the Facebook post’s automatic own tally.

ALECA is the French acronym for the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) currently being negotiated between Tunisia and the European Union (EU). Tunisia and the EU already have an association agreement dating back to 1995 that stipulates tariff free trade in industrial goods as well as some agricultural goods. However, the new agreement is far wider in scope covering agriculture, services, and vast regulatory guidelines covering everything from intellectual property to public procurement procedures to food health standards. The April 30th meeting was held one day after the launch of the fourth round of negotiations.

Trade negotiations for ALECA were launched in October of 2015 and the first negotiating round took place in April 2016. But in recent months, opposition to the law has begun to ramp up as the meaning and predicted effects of the deal on the Tunisian economy have received greater scrutiny.

“In this agreement there is absolutely no advantage for the Tunisian economy,” Ines Mahmoud an activist and organizer with the group calling itself Block ALECA Collective (مجموعة التصدّي للاليكا) told Meshkal. “ALECA is a new colonial agreement…colonialism in that sense means a form of dependency and exploitation over and power over another country.”

Opponents of ALECA have numerous concerns. In agriculture, for example, some have argued that the liberalization of agricultural markets would allow heavily subsidized European agricultural goods to be dumped onto the Tunisian market, an issue recently highlighted in the study “European Agricultural Subsidies: A Blind Spot in the Negotiation over Liberalizing Agricultural Exchange” by Chafik Ben Rouine, head of quantitative research at the Tunisian Observatory of Economy (OTE by its French acronym). Some estimate this could put over 100,000 Tunisian farmers—especially grain farmers—out of work, while other collectives and research groups have raised alarms over land and water use that could be further redirected towards export crops instead of producing enough food domestically for Tunisian consumers. Others have argued that the intellectual property protections included in ALECA would regulate medicine patents and drug production in a way that would increase medicine prices, an effect similar trade deals have had in other countries. While EU accession is off the table in the negotiations—meaning Tunisia would not have a vote at the table in deciding EU norms and regulations—ALECA in its current form appears to include stipulations requiring Tunisia to update its laws in accordance with EU laws.

What Role for Civil Society?

The Block ALECA Collective, which is part of a broader coalition of civil society groups opposing ALECA, helped to organize the action at the April 30th event. Panelists at the event included Hichem Ben Ahmed, the head of Tunisia’s negotiating team who also holds the portfolio of Minister of Transportation, and Ignacio Garcia Bercero, the chief EU negotiator. The event had been billed as a civil society event though it was not publicized, according to activists from the collective. On the official Tunisian state website promoting the ALECA negotiations, Aleca.tn, a section on the participation of civil society indicates that those civil society wishing to participate need to fill out an application form, while those already registered can benefit from “opportunities for privileged meetings.”

“These civil society meetings are theoretically open to to the Tunisian civil society, so a group of activists went there…representing civil society,” said Mahmoud.

Some participants at the April 30th protest saw the protesters’ disruption as a positive sign of healthy debate. Ghazi Ben Ahmed, the president and founder of the Mediterranean Development Initiative (MDI) whose profile on LinkedIn indicates he was formerly an economist with the European Commission working “to improve the competitiveness of the European textiles and clothing industry,” shared a video of the protest on his Twitter account.

“This type of demonstration is healthy and proves that we are for sure on the path to democracy in Tunisia,” he wrote in a tweet.

MDI lists as “partners” on its website multinational corporations including pharmaceutical company Merck. Ghazi Ben Ahmed is also the author of a 91-page “Guide to ALECA,” published by MDI and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung on the official Aleca.tn website which argues that Aleca “intends to help citizens” in various economic activities.

After the video of the protest went viral on social media, activists from the group said they heard from other participants that Hichem Ben Ahmed, the chief Tunisian negotiator, had said he would like to meet with the protesters for discussions. But some of the activists associated with the Block ALECA Collective told Meshkal they don’t think it would be fruitful to meet with the Tunisian negotiating team, with many focusing their efforts instead on grassroots organizing or reaching out to parliament.

“We’re not trying to reform the negotiations, we’re trying to block them,” Henda Chennaoui, an activist for the Block ALECA Coalition told Meshkal.

Unions Come out Against ALECA

The day after the protest, May 1st and international workers’ day, the Block ALECA Collective was one of several groups who participated in a demonstration and a march to the main downtown thoroughfare of Bourguiba Avenue. The march began at the headquarters of the UGTT, Tunisia’s main labor union and an institution that played a key historical role in Tunisia’s struggle for independence from French colonial rule. Two days later on May 3, the UGTT issued a statement calling on Tunisia’s government to stop negotiations on ALECA.

“These negotiations are being conducted in full obscurity, in the absence of a parliamentary mandate, and without a serious assessment of the repercussions of the 1995 Partnership Agreement,” the UGTT statement reads.

The UGTT criticism of the opacity of negotiations comes even as the UGTT is listed as one of the civil society groups on the Aleca.tn website included in the negotiations’ “participatory mechanism.”

Activists pushing to block negotiations see this as an important sign that the anti-ALECA movement is gaining momentum.

On Sunday May 12, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed felt compelled to address opposition to the ALECA negotiations during an address to the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishing (UTAP) at the Conference Palace exhibition hall in Tunis on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the nationalization of previously colonized Tunisian land.

“There is of course an issue about which I cannot be among you today without addressing—I’m looking at the banners,” Chahed said pointing to protest banners in the back of the conference hall “about which there’s a lot of talk and that is the [ALECA].”

Screenshot from the YouTube video shared by Tunisia’s National TV Station covering the Tunisian PM’s address to UTAP featuring a protest banner reading “Importation=Subsidization of the European Farmer” in Tunis at the Conference Palace on May 12, 2019, Meshkal news team

One of the banners, which cameras from the Tunisian National Television station recorded as part of their coverage of the speech and later posted to the station’s YouTube channel, read in Arabic “ALECA is the Bullet that Will Destroy what Remains of Agriculture.” Another sign read: “Importation = Subsidization of the European Farmer.”

Screenshot from the YouTube video shared by Tunisia’s National TV Station covering the Tunisian PM’s address to UTAP featuring a protest banner reading “ALECA is the Bullet that Will Destroy what Remains of Agriculture” in Tunis at the Conference Palace on May 12, 2019, Meshkal news team

“Any agreement in which Tunisia will not be gaining, and any agreement that does not take into account the interest of the agricultural sector, we won’t proceed with it,” Chahed said.

Chahed’s comments followed an introduction by Abdelmajid Ezzar, President of UTAP, in which Ezzar was highly critical of ALECA.

“We have expressed our position loudly, totally rejecting the signing of [ALECA] with Europe in its current formulation because we would sign a decision hurting the Tunisian farmer and destroying Tunisian agriculture,” Ezzar said in his presentation.

Studies on the potential effects of ALECA vary in their findings. An “impact assessment in support of” ALECA carried out before negotiations began in 2013 and funded by the European Commission found that Tunisia would see a seven percent increase in GDP as a result of the deal. But a more recent study conducted in 2018 by the Austrian Foundation for Development Research (OFSE) and funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that Tunisia’s GDP would decrease “by 0.52% in the case of full tariff liberalization in both FTA [Free Trade Agreement] partners.” The 2013 study supporting ALECA is featured on the “studies and statistics” page of the official Tunisian website dedicated to ALECA (Aleca.tn) however the 2018 study by OFSE is not featured on the page, as of May 18, 2019.

According to the OFSE study, Tunisian “cereals and foods beverages will be negatively affected by higher import competition from EU products, while only selected sectors in Tunisia (vegetable oils and vegetables/fruits) benefit slightly.”

The EU’s chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero, has argued that since “Tunisia represents 0.5% of the EU total trade,” the EU’s “commercial interests in Tunisia are therefore rather limited,” in an interview published by Barr al Aman in January 2019. However, about 80 percent of Tunisia’s exports go to Europe, according to data from 2017, suggesting a highly asymmetrical trade relationship. As for the potential impact on Tunisia’s agricultural sector from exposure to competition from Europe, Bercero notes in the same interview that Tunisia has already received € 214 million to support “increasing the competitiveness and sustainability of the agricultural sector and to facilitate and diversify exports.”

But some skeptics are fiercely critical of Europe’s intentions. ALECA is “at the heart of this relationship of hostile economic neocolonialism,” Haythem Guesmi, a Tunisian writer and doctoral student at the University of Montréal wrote in widely shared opinion article published in Le Monde on Friday, May 17. ALECA is “a neocolonial project that aims to annihilate any possibility of economic sovereignty of Tunisia by marginalizing or even eliminating vital sectors of the economy such as the agriculture, health, and services…a project of total economic dependence.”

In the Streets Against ALECA

Guesmi’s view is echoed by many of the activists organizing to block ALECA. At sundown last Friday, May 17, about a dozen activists began to gather on a patch of grass beside the clock tower on Bourguiba Avenue. The usually bustling central avenue was nearly entirely empty and very quiet as most Tunisians were at home breaking fast (the “iftar” meal) and getting ready to watch the special TV series produced for the month of Ramadan. Cops in civilian clothes had already come up to the small group before the breaking of the fast.

“We told them: ‘Hey guys, we usually let you know in advance when our protests might get tense. But this time we’re just going to have some food, chat, and hand out fliers talking about economics,” one activist said.

A group of Tunisians, mostly seasoned activists, sit together in downtown Tunis near Bourguiba Avenue after the iftar meal as they discuss ALECA and prepare to hand out fliers on Friday, May 17, 2019, Meshkal news team

In January 2018, Tunisian authorities arrested at least 50 activists from the Fech Nstannew movement for either handing out leaflets or writing slogans on walls, according to Human Rights Watch. That movement mobilized primarily to reject economic austerity and the passage of a budget for 2018 that cut subsidies and increased consumption taxed.

But no activists were arrested this Friday. Many of those gathered had previous experience in activism or are part of civil society groups that campaign for political and social change. However a few participants were new to activism and said they had come to take part after they saw the event shared on Facebook. After sharing a meal together at the Ramadan fast-breaking time and a subsequent discussion amongst participants, the group split into groups of four to hand out fliers to people who had begun to flock to Bourguiba Avenue for post-iftar strolls and coffees.

One group of activists even handed out anti-ALECA fliers to policemen stationed on the avenue, with some of the officers giving positive responses and one saying “we’re with you.”

An activist hands out fliers opposing the ALECA trade deal to people walking along Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis on Friday, May 17, 2019. Photo by William Edwards.

“Our fight is for the sovereignty of Tunisia. Our task is to get people to know ALECA,” said one activist who asked that Meshkal not use his name.

ALECA by Another Name?

While ALECA’s slow progress and growing opposition to the deal have raised questions about its eventual passage, there are some indications that ALECA’s critics are working against the clock.

“We agreed to conclude [ALECA] at the latest during 2019 because I would like, under the mandate of this commission, that this accord be definitively worked out,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission said at a joint press conference with Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in Brussels on April 24, 2018.

When activists linked to the Block ALECA group handed out fliers for an hour on Bourguiba Avenue on Friday, they reported that most of the people they engaged had not heard of the bill.

Tunisia’s parliament still has to vote on ALECA for it to be enacted, according to Article 67 of the 2014 constitution. But activists are worried that Tunisian parliament may pass parts of the ALECA deal without passing the whole deal. In fact, some argue that elements of ALECA have already been passed by parliament or entered Tunisia law by decree. Maha Ben Gadha, the Director of Economic Programs at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation North Africa Office, gave as a few examples Tunisia’s passage of the Public Private Partnership law, an Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA by its French acronym), and a convention with the European Patent office in an interview to Barr Al Aman.

Another example is “Law No. 25 of 2019 dated 26 February 2019 on the health of food and animal food,” which was passed by Tunisian parliament and corresponds to the ALECA chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Rules [SPS], according to Mahmoud.

“The adoption of this law aims to converge to the EU acquis. That should have been negotiated,” Mahmoud told Meshkal.

“For the EU it is very clear, that as long as there is no progress in negotiations from the Tunisian side and as long as it is not apparent that the Tunisian side will proceed to sign the accord very soon, it will exercise pressure through imposing conditions tied to loans, macro-financial assistance, and also through technical assistance programs granted to Tunisia by the EU. This is what, for us, also falls under the term neocolonialism. This way, the EU can attempt to include sections of ALECA in conditions, which have to be fulfilled by Tunisia in order to receive tranches of loans, to be passed as national legislation before signing the accord as it is,” Mahmoud told Meshkal.

This argument that the conditionality of EU assistance is tied to reforms relating to ALECA is not new. In a 2017 study entitled “DCFTA: a key instrument of EU policy,” Jihen Chandoul, head of policy research and advocacy of the Tunisian Observatory of Economy (OTE) drew a link between aid and trade negotiations. “In April 2017, the EU granted a second Macro-Financial Assistance package to Tunisia, amounting to €500 million. Some weeks later, the DCFTA process for negotiations was revived through the establishment of negotiation committees,” Chandoul wrote.

The vote on law 25 on health standards passed with 100 Members of Parliament (MPs) voting in favor, no abstentions and one against, according to an announcement of the vote shared on the Tunisian parliament’s own Facebook page. Further details on the vote and which members specifically voted for it were unavailable both on the parliament’s official website and on the website of Marsad Majles, a project run by the NGO Al Bawsala that oversees parliament.

“I’m asking myself where is the opposition? Where is the Popular Front, where is Attayar, where is PDP? Where are the people in Nahda and other parties who are saying they want to respect the national economy, that they want to protect the Tunisian agricultural sector and not destroy it, because this is exactly what they did when they let this law pass. It is absolutely crucial, that in future, other parts of ALECA are not implemented in advance in the form of national laws,” Mahmoud said.

William Edwards contributed to this article.