Tunisia, facing lingering social and economic problems, has begun talks to further link its economy and society with the European Union through a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).
The DCFTA involves integrating Tunisia’s economy, including its farming sector, with the European Union. Tunisia’s long-neglected farmers contend with growing competition from the European market and the agricultural sector needs reform, officials said.
Tunisian Chief Negotiator Hichem Ben Ahmed said 12 technical items had been discussed, including the free movement of people.
“The previous accord with the European Union does not include agriculture and services. With (DFCTA), they will be on the table of negotiations,” he said. “For us, we cannot talk about a free services sector while we do not permit the free movement of professionals and capital.”
Several civic associations sent representatives to the talks, which began May 28 and are likely to extend through 2019.
Expanding ties with the European Union is crucial for Tunisia, which has the highest rate of economic integration with the European Union in the Maghreb. Much of Tunisia’s service, industry and tourism sectors depend on European markets.
Since 1995, when a limited Tunisian-EU free trade agreement was signed, Tunisia has tripled exports to the European bloc and the European Union has doubled exports to Tunisia. The country is home to 3,000 small and medium-sized European enterprises.
For European leaders, close ties to Tunisia, which is seen as a rare democratic success story in the region, are political and diplomatic assets. Its location at the crossroads of Europe and Africa gives it an edge in international trade.
Analysts said the onus is on the Tunisian side, with fears that political instability and the lack of a national consensus about reforms could cause it miss economic opportunities.
“These negotiations are a moment of truth because the country has to pick the right selection of the sectors to be integrated and the pace of negotiations,” EU Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Ciolos, a former Romanian prime minister, said during a conference on EU-Tunisian trade links.
“These kinds of negotiations require carrying out studies of assessment on society and territory,” he added.
An opinion poll released ahead of the talks stated that 82% of Tunisian farmers asked said they feared the DCFTA would benefit only large farming operations that have easy access to bank loans and markets.
“The farming sector is still less attractive for Tunisians because of its declining profits and falling revenues, especially for small farms,” said Tunisian Agriculture Ministry Director General Abdelhamid Gasmi.
“Tunisia has demanded, and will demand, accompanying measures for agriculture during the transitional period, which could last for more than 10 years.”
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO, said: “Many jobs will be lost in services and agriculture as they can withstand competition with similar sectors in European Union. Some farming segments will disappear because of the competition widening Tunisia’s food reliance on imports like cereals.
“If no measures were taken, investments will go to north-eastern regions and accentuate the regional inequalities,” it added.
Analysts and politicians said regional inequality is a driver of social unrest in the Tunisian interior, which is less developed than coastal areas.
This disparity has existed since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956. Pre-independence authorities built ports, a railway network and roads in coastal regions. Tunisia’s first post-independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, from the coastal town of Monastir, continued the pattern.
The government of his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, also encouraged investment in tourism and manufacturing industries along the coast.
Coastal highways are wide and well-built to accommodate tourist buses and vehicles heading to the area’s major hotels. Further west and north-west, drivers travel along narrow, ill-maintained roads.
Ciolos, who experienced Tunisia’s fears and hopes of connecting to EU markets first-hand, urged Tunisians to “overcome fear and ideology and take (DCFTA) as a milestone on a path of development and progress.
“Protectionism for some sectors for lack of competitiveness does not work in today’s world,” he said. “Which model for agriculture do you want to build over the next 10 or 15 years? Answer to this question and then think about (DCFTA). You have to think and negotiate big.”
Agriculture in Tunisia has grown an average 3% a year over the past 20 years, accounting for 11% of GDP. It employs 18% of the labour force and represents 8% of total exports.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.