Home » Weber calls on Tunisia to bring down migrant numbers
Bilateral Relations Brussels Business Defence Diplomatics Economy Environment Europe European Union Featured Global News Migrant National Security News Politics World News

Weber calls on Tunisia to bring down migrant numbers

Migrants of African origin trying to flee to Europe are transferred from a small boat belonging to the Tunisian coast guard onto a larger vessel, at sea between Tunisia and Italy, on August 10, 2023. Mediterranean Sea crossing attempts from Tunisia have multiplied following a incendiary speech by the Tunisian president who had alleged that "hordes" of irregular migrants were causing crime and posing a demographic threat to the mainly Arab country. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Good morning. In news breaking this morning, military officers in Gabon have appeared on television in the country to say they have seized power. Earlier, official results showed President Ali Bongo Ondimba won a third term in office following the country’s election on Saturday. But soldiers announced a cancellation of the result, and the dissolution of the country’s institutions, amid reports of gunfire in the capital Libreville. “We are putting an end to the current regime,” the soldiers said, according to AFP.


EPP CHIEF URGES TUNISIAN PRESIDENT TO ‘DELIVER’ ON MIGRATION DEAL: EPP chief Manfred Weber continues his trip to Tunisia today, to push for results on the migration deal the EU recently struck with the country. Under the deal, the EU will pay money in exchange for Tunisia bringing down the number of migrants that cross the Mediterranean.

Weber wants results: “My message was clear: we need results. We are talking about a lot of European taxpayers’ money here, and the figures have to come down. I can’t explain to the European taxpayer that we are spending so much tax money here if we don’t get clear results,” Weber told Playbook in a call Tuesday evening after meeting Tunisian President Kais Saied for nearly two hours.

Background: The number of migrants leaving Tunisia to cross into the EU — mostly to nearby Italy — has increased dramatically this year. Irregular arrivals by boat to Italy more than doubled this year to 106,000 so far, even as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her right-wing government had promised to bring those numbers down.

The deal: In mid-July Meloni, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen struck a deal with Saied under which Europe would pay €105 million to boost Tunisia’s border protection, an additional €150 million to prop up Tunisia’s state budget and up to €900 million in additional support, if Tunisia meets the conditions for an IMF loan linked to economic reforms.

The problem: Tunisia has veered dangerously into the territory of racist authoritarianism under the leadership of Saied, who has incarcerated critics, changed the constitution to grant himself greater powers and has fueled the persecution of migrants from sub-saharan Africa, as my colleague Paola Tamma reported this week.

That’s made the deal unpalatable for critics such as the former Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. But confronted with the criticism, Weber pleaded for realpolitik: the EU needed to work with the partners it can work with, he argued.

Weber’s pitch: “For me, the trip is first and foremost a party political trip, I am here today as head of the EPP because we … are working to get results on this issue,” Weber said, adding that a result-oriented approach on migration was how he wanted to position the EPP for upcoming elections across the EU and to the European Parliament next year.

Big step for VDL, bigger one for the EPP: “I would cite Antonio Tajani, Italy’s foreign minister [who helped negotiate the deal], and the Commission president, that was certainly a big step for her to come here together with Meloni and Rutte.” Weber added he had on Monday phoned Tajani “and I also spoke with Ursula [von der Leyen]” in preparation for his trip to Tunisia.

Three worlds: “In the discussion about migration we have three worlds at the moment. One side needs the topic to scare people, that’s [Jarosław] Kaczyński in Poland …and the far right. Then on the other hand we have those who only moralize and say that we can’t talk to Tunisia, that they are no partners for us, because there are some videos from the desert or something, these are the moralizers. And there’s … the EPP, which is leading this results-oriented discussion” together with Tunisia, Weber said.

The scenes from the desert Weber mentioned allude to an episode in which Tunisian authorities allegedly rounded up migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and transported them on buses to the border with Libya, with little access to food, water or shelter from the sun. At least 27 people who were forcibly transferred died, according to Libyan authorities.

Asked about such human rights violations and the persecution of opposition politicians and minorities in Tunisia, Weber said he had spoken about the subject with Saied. “I told him that at the end of the day, a modern state is measured by how it deals with minorities, which is why the rule of law is so fundamental. And I also made the link — you know Tunisia’s main concern now is to find investors — I told him that any investor will look closely at whether there’s political stability.”

Prospects for Tunisians: Weber said helping build the Tunisian economy was key, and said EU leaders should also blame themselves for their “egoistical European thinking” which ignored the country’s economic plight, only turning their attention to it once migration numbers had shot up. “The question is, how can you build prospects for people? Migration figures in recent months have been driven by many Tunisians who are leaving the country because they see no prospects for themselves.”

In short: “We know our responsibility and the humanitarian aspects, but we now need a solution with the Tunisians and the neighbors in North Africa.”

HOW MELONI LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE MIGRATION: Italy’s Meloni was elected on a combative anti-migration platform, but since coming to power she is learning that bringing down migration is easier said than done, my colleague Jacopo Barigazzi writes in this must-read story today. What’s more, Meloni is now opening Italy’s door to up to 1.5 million additional legal migrants over the next decade or so.

NGOs vs. Meloni: Over 50 NGOs have written an open letter to the European Commission urging it to take action against Italy’s alleged crackdown on migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. Human rights groups accuse Meloni’s government of making life difficult for them by blocking their operations, issuing fines and forcing them to dock in far-away harbors. “If the obstruction of humanitarian assistance at sea continues, we could see by the end of the year a drastic reduction or the absence of civil rescue ships at sea,” they write. 

**On September 19, POLITICO will host a panel discussion “Open Finance: the battle for data”. This event convenes a high-level debate with experts to discuss the protection of consumer data and the European Commission’s recently published legislative proposal for a new open finance framework. Register today for onsite participation**


AUSTRIA WEIGHS IN: The enlargement debate has been heating up this week with both European Council President Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron weighing in on the topic on Monday. Austria is the latest country to proffer its views on whether the EU should open its doors to new members —and  it’s not holding back. 

No treaty reform: Speaking at the European Forum Alpbach this week in the picturesque Tyrol region, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg made clear that Vienna is not in favor of reforming the EU’s fundamental treaties before accepting new members — something other countries such as France and Germany have suggested may be needed to prevent the EU from becoming ungovernable.

Political will: “We don’t need institutional reforms,” he told a panel at Alpbach. “People who say that the EU could enlarge but needs institutional forms are those who actually don’t want it. I was part of the negotiation team for the convention and then for the Treaty of Lisbon. We have everything there. The only thing we need is political will.” 

Bigger picture: Schallenberg’s message: Europe should rise to the moment, and stop keeping these countries waiting. 

History lesson: “We understood this in the past,” he told POLITICO’s Suzanne Lynch in an interview. “In 1981 the European communities took in Greece, to safeguard a young democracy. In 1986, it was the same with Portugal and Spain — Spain had experienced an attempted coup five years earlier. At the time, we understood that this was necessary to make sure that these countries were part of our family of values. We have to do the same thing now. We have to do it with Ukraine, we have to do it with Moldova, and we have to do it with the Western Balkans.”

How exactly? To do that, the Austrian foreign minister said the EU needed to “be bold and to change our approach to enlargement.” He said that it’s time to leave the “binary thinking” that has characterized the EU’s approach in the past, which assumed “that’s it’s either zero or one, that’s either you’re not a member or you’re a full member.”

Schallenberg added: “Enlargement is not a bureaucratic endeavor. It’s not a legalistic endeavor. It’s not about applying each comma and paragraph of the acquis” (the EU’s set of standards and norms that aspiring countries must adhere to before they can join).

Further listening: You can hear the full interview with Alexander Schallenberg later this week on EU Confidential, our weekly podcast which returns to the airways this Friday morning after the summer break. 

COMMISSION SNUBS MICHEL’S 2030 TARGET: The European Commission on Tuesday shot down Charles Michel’s remarks from Monday that the bloc should be ready to accept new members by 2030. “We are not focused on a date, but focused on working very closely with candidate countries to get ready for joining the European Union,” the Commission’s Deputy Spokesperson Dana Spinant said.

You said what? Spinant added that Michel had not consulted Ursula von der Leyen about the content of his enlargement speech, delivered at a conference in Bled, Slovenia. Spinant insisted that enlargement is a “merit-based process,” and that candidate countries should only be allowed to join once they fulfill the EU’s entry criteria. Ouch! Read more.


NGOs CALL ON THE EU TO SANCTION RIYADH: NGOs have warned that Western governments are turning a blind eye to the Saudi regime’s alleged murder of hundreds of Ethiopian migrants trying to cross the border from Yemen. Human Rights Watch has urged the EU to retaliate against Saudi Arabia after a report from the NGO documented the alleged atrocities.

Call to action: My colleague Gregorio Sorgi spoke with the author of the report, Nadia Hardman as well as HRW’s Senior EU Advocate Claudio Francavilla and researcher Joey Shea. “We would expect first of all a strong condemnation of the abusers and a commitment to back a U.N. investigation into these abuses,” Francavilla told him. 

But the EU has only “expressed concern” about the findings of the report and deferred any action until the Ethiopian government conducts its own investigation. The EEAS indicated that it will raise this issue with Riyadh but, as Francavilla says: “The point is what channel will be used, the level at which the concerns will be raised, and the tone that will be used.” The NGO urged the EU to propose an independent U.N. investigation in the upcoming Human Rights Council session, arguing that the Ethiopian government cannot be trusted to carry out an independent probe. 

EU realpolitik klaxon: There are fears that the EU is turning a blind eye to human rights breaches from oil-rich Gulf states as it tries to wean itself off Russian imports in the wake of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Human rights activists argue that the EU’s muted response to the HRW report is emboldening strongman leaders in the region. “I think it all circles back to impunity and what the authorities are able to get away with. This can’t be the moment where they get away with this level of just horrendous crime,” Hardman said.

Saudi Arabia hits back: In a statement last week, the Saudi government “rejected the allegations and false information cited in a report by an organization regarding alleged assaults on groups of Ethiopian citizens while crossing the Saudi-Yemeni borders, stressing that these allegations are unfounded and are based on unreliable sources.”

**Ahead of the European elections in 2024, the next legislature will face crucial healthcare challenges. Is there a trade-off between competitiveness and affordability of medicine? How will the pharmaceutical legislation support or impact the functioning of supply chains ? Find out at POLITICO Live’s Health Care Summit on October 24 and 25 in Brussels. Apply now to book your seat!**


UK PARLIAMENT LABELS TAIWAN ‘INDEPENDENT’: The U.K. parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has for the first time referred to Taiwan as an “independent country” in an official document, breaking a political taboo as Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visits China. “Taiwan is already an independent country, under the name Republic of China,” the committee report stated, adding it “possesses all the qualifications for statehood.” More from Stuart Lau here.

KAZAKHSTAN COULD SHIP MORE URANIUM TO EU: Kazakhstan is prepared to ship more uranium to Europe if necessary amid concerns over supply risks caused by the military coup in Niger, the head of the country’s top state-run nuclear company told POLITICO. But, “for the moment we don’t see demand,” said Kazatomprom CEO Yerzhan Mukanov. More from Victor Jack here.

MACRON’S ABAYA BAN: With the ban on abayas in schools, Emmanuel Macron is killing two birds with one stone: He sends a signal to the right and divides the left. But the ban on the Islamic clothing enters tricky legal territory, Clea Caulcutt writes.

RUSSIAN AIRPORT ATTACKED: Four military transport planes were damaged in a drone attack on Pskov airport overnight, Russian officials said. Anti-aircraft defenses were activated across the city of Pskov, which lies close to the border with Estonia and Latvia, while drones were also reported across other regions in Russia. Reuters has the details.

Kyiv struck: Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that two people died and two were injured as a result of falling debris after Russian missiles targeted the Ukrainian capital.

DREAM BIG: Europe needs to think bigger to build its capital markets union, Fabio Panetta, a member of the ECB’s executive board, writes in an opinion article. “A fully functioning CMU would both enhance Europe’s economic structure and benefit the euro area,” he says.


— Informal meeting of defense ministers in Toledo, Spain. Arrivals and doorsteps with High Representative Josep Borrell at 8.20 a.m. … roundtable at 8.55 a.m. … press conference at 3 p.m. Agenda … Watch.

— Irish Minister for Public Expenditure and President of the Eurogroup Paschal Donohoe attends the European Forum Alpbach, Tyrol, Austria. Takes part in a panel discussion on How to strengthen Europe’s Economic and Financial Sovereignty from 4.30 p.m. Details here.

— Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski in Turku, Finland. Participates in the Europe Forum … meets Finland’s Prime Minister Petteri Orpo … attends working lunch hosted by the Finnish Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners.


BELGIUM PAUSES SHELTER FOR SINGLE MALE ASYLUM SEEKERS: Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Nicole de Moor announced Tuesday that Belgium would temporarily stop providing shelter for single male asylum seekers, in anticipation of what she said would be “the growing influx of families and children” this coming winter.

System pressure: De Moor claimed that Belgium “has been doing more than its fair share for a long time” in accepting asylum seekers, and said “this cannot go on any longer,” pointing out that countries such as Portugal accepted fewer asylum seekers than Belgium this year, while Sweden has had “very few asylum applications.” More from Brussels Times here.

LIVING IN THE OFFICE: The European Commission’s offices on Avenue des Nerviens could get a new lease of life as a residential block, Bruzz reports. Property developer Revive intends to convert the building into apartments and studios, subject to permit approval. The Commission, however, is due to keep offices in the building until the end of 2026.