BRUSSELS — The European Ombudsman is investigating the European Commission over its controversial migration agreement with Tunisia.
In a letter from the EU ethics watchdog to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Ombudsman seeks answers about the protection of human rights in the July deal with the authoritarian government of Tunisian President Kais Saied.
The Tunisian strongman has been criticized by the UN for his “racist” treatment of sub-Saharan Africans and his violent repression of the domestic opposition.
“Where fundamental rights are not respected, there can be no good administration,” wrote European ombudsman Emily O’Reilly in a letter addressed to von der Leyen on Wednesday evening, made public Friday morning.
The investigation comes amid growing criticism of the deal, which promises EU money to Tunisia in exchange for help stopping migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to the Europe.
Members of the European Parliament, non-governmental organizations and EU member countries including Germany have criticized the deal on the grounds that it ignores human rights and strengthens Saied’s authoritarian rule. Earlier this week, the Tunisian government refused entry to a delegation of European lawmakers on an official mission to Tunis – MEPs had previously criticized democratic backsliding in the country.
Regardless, von der Leyen continued to support the deal, describing it as a model for similar agreements with other North African countries in his State of the European Union speech on Wednesday .
In her letter, the European Ombudsman insisted to the Commission on how she intends to guarantee that the Tunisian authorities respect human rights. He stressed that the EU executive should carry out a human rights assessment before signing agreements with foreign countries.
“Does the Commission intend to carry out a periodic, systematic and effective evaluation of the impact on human rights of actions undertaken in the context of the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding? O’Reilly wrote in the letter.
The agreement provides 105 million euros to support Tunisia’s border control operations, and an additional 150 million euros to support the country’s budget in a context of galloping inflation. But no amount has yet been disbursed, as Brussels and Tunis are still ironing out the details, which EU countries are also expected to approve.
The watchdog expressed fears that the Tunisian government could even use EU money to commit human rights violations.
“Has the Commission defined criteria for possible suspension of funds due to non-respect of human rights? » asked the Mediator.
A Commission spokesperson said that respect for human rights “is ensured through regular structured dialogue with government and civil society, as well as targeted development assistance”.
The deadline for the Commission’s response is December 13. After that date, the ethics watchdog could open an investigation to determine whether the EU executive acted wrongfully and possibly issue a non-binding recommendation.