THE BLOG

Why Europe Must Now Support Tunisia More Than Ever

25/11/2014 15:24 GMT | Updated 25/01/2015 10:59 GMT

We Europeans did nothing to help Tunisia achieve its revolution in January 2011. Yet, today, we can and must support the most successful of the Arab Spring countries - because we know that democracy can never be taken for granted.

Ahead of last Sunday's Presidential elections, every single taxi driver I talked to last week in Tunis expressed high hopes for the future - but also fears that the country might never come to see them realised.

If the birth of democracy is not followed by a more prosperous, more just and socially equal system, we run the risk of seeing democracy fail altogether - as was the case in 1990s Russia, with today's dramatic consequences.

Europe accounts for 80% of Tunisia's trade, and, as Government Minister and economist Hedi Larbi told me, should use its strength and expertise to help boost Tunisia's public and private sectors. Back in the taxi, a young driver called Radi told me that he would vote for the old regime, because the price of lamb has doubled in four years. Our financial sector shares responsibility for excessive speculation over vital food prices.

As public finances are in the red, our support should also be offered to fight corruption and uphold the rule of law in a country where public services have been grossly mismanaged for decades. Many of the political leaders I met raised education as a priority: not building schools, but rather raising their quality and enhancing the curriculum. By opening up new opportunities for Tunisia's students, whose IT skills are remarkable yet under-utilized, the country can boost its economy: today, IT services contribute as much to Tunisia's economy as tourism. Nothing is preventing Europeans from visiting this beautiful country and encouraging more exchanges in this field.

As I met with Tunisia's leading NGO for transparency, Al Bawsala - Arabic for 'compass', pointing the way towards democracy - I also realised how young Tunisia's freshly elected Parliament was: MPs still have neither offices nor parliamentary staff, while an unprecedented amount of key legislation is set to be drafted in 2015 - from establishing a new Supreme Court to an independent judiciary.

I had the privilege to meet Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, who believes one of the main ways to build popular trust in the new democratic institutions is to directly involve the younger generations. Indeed, Tunisians are on average 10 years younger than Europeans: yet many years will need to pass before the bright new generations hold the reins of democratic power.

Again, we can help: by welcoming students to Scotland and by sending more English teachers to Tunisia, where speaking English has become a highly valued skill for working - at home, but also in Europe and beyond.

Upon meeting Kamel Jendoubi, who chaired Tunisia's first free and fair elections, it seemed to me that Europe needed a wider, deeper relationship with Tunisia's 11 million citizens. While Europe signed its first Association Agreement with Tunisia in 1995, much remains to be done. Agricultural products are still hampered by quotas and taxes levied upon entering the EU, while agriculture still accounts for 9% of Tunisia's GDP and a much higher percentage of its labour force. As a young political leader told me, Europe and Tunisia should conclude an "Open Skies" agreement to facilitate travel and tourism.

Another key reform is devolution. Aymen, a journalist from Sidi Bouzid - where the revolution started - told me that people still feel disenfranchised from a self-centred capital city that hoards all decision-making powers. Scotland can offer invaluable experience in this field.

After holding so many intense and enlightening meetings in Tunisia this week, I would like Europe to understand that there is much more to Tunisia than we'd like to think.

If Tunisia's democratic transition fails, the Arab world's most promising fertile ground for democracy will be lost. Tunisia gives hope to the Arab world's 400 million hopeful citizens. It is a seed we must nurture, for our future prosperity and security depends on that of our neighbours. Europe knows there is no stability without democracy, no Government without accountability, and no investment without transparency.

At this critical time in the history of the Arab world, Europe must stand by Tunisia. It is much more important than we think.

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