Tunisian olive oil, a tool to fight terrorism?

The last few years have been challenging for Tunisia. Many changes have characterized the country after the Arab Spring. Considered by public opinion as the only Arab state with democratic outcomes, Tunisia has recently experienced terrorism within its own borders. When the turmoil of the Jasmine Revolution was far and democracy was knocking at Tunisia’s door, it had to face the radicalization of Islam and terrorist attacks as it was never experienced before.

The attack at the Bardo Museum was unexpected not only for Tunisia itself that had never believed of having the necessity of fighting Daesh within its own borders, but the attack was shocking for the entire world. Soon after it, the European Union took a step toward Tunisia declaring that the security of the North African country represents the security of the EU and of all its Member states, but no concrete measure was taken. The awareness of the unstable situation of Tunisia arose into EU minds when another attack occurred. Few weeks after a member of the Daesh killed 38 tourists in Sousse, the EU declared its solidarity in helping the country to rise from this turbulent period.

In particular, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU, stated the importance the EU has in supporting economy, employment and the agricultural sector in Tunisia. An allocation of €23 million was also promised for the country’s security, justice, border protection and fight against radicalization. However, what was supposed to be a monetary aid turned to be a loan. These €23 million were actually lent to Tunisia not only for new security policies but also to improve the human rights’ assets and to fight cross-border criminality. Apparently, this was not enough.

Seemingly out of context, the olive oil export had to be inserted in this framework. Since the terrorist attacks, dropped dramatically the tourist arrivals in the country (tourism was one of the main income for Tunisia), the EU Commission proposed the expansion of the duty-free quota of olive oil imports by 35,000 tonnes per year for a period of two years. This is not new to the country since Tunisia already enjoys 56,700 tonnes of duty-free import of olive oil per year. In fact, the additional sum will be added once the original annual quota is reached.

This is not the first time the two actors cooperate economically. After the 2011 democratization process in Tunisia, the EU and Tunisia tried to start a free trade agreement (known as DCFTA, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement). The negotiations for free trade agreement have been taking time to the two actors and the agreement is not fully active, yet. This was surprising because in the past an agreement of free trade was usually offered to Eastern European countries more than to the North African ones. The reasons are easy: countries that differ economically have to meet the same technical and sanitary standards as well as aligning part of their legislation. The result in the short term has not been an open market, but long transition periods characterized by little steps toward the free trade. Usually, the beginning of these kind of agreements sees the barriers maintained for sensitive products and only in a second step the EU starts to meet the needs of a third country, notably those of Tunisia in this case.

Although the olive oil sector in Tunisia covers more than a million employers and olive oil is the main agricultural export product, this solidarity from the EU towards the country raises a lot of concern for Mediterranean olive oil producers, notably Greece, Spain and Italy. These three countries are also going through an economic crisis that is hampering their well-being and did not expect that the EU showed solidarity towards Tunisia and instead of towards its internal Member states.

In particular, Italian politicians raise awareness of the difficulties Italy will afford if Tunisia starts exporting duty-free olive oil in the EU. The most intense debate is placed among the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) party. They did not only criticized the indifference of President Renzi, but also the absence of the former Minister for Economic Development Federica Guidi and of the Minister of Agricultural Policies Maurizio Martina from the European debates concerning the olive oil import from Tunisia. They fear that this new economic stimulus for Tunisia will mean an advantage for big multinationals that will be push to mix Tunisian olive oil with the Italian one or will probably sell the product with “Extra-EU” labels.

From his side, the Minister of Agricultural Policies Maurizio Martina is convinced of the strict controls inside the Italian oil industry and he is confident that the EU will follow the conditions to safeguard the European oil sector. At the same time, he is suspicious of the effects it can have on Italy. A quite controversial position.

Nonetheless, the control in this sector in Italy has not been that strict. For instance, less than one year ago seven of Italy’s well-known olive oil companies (between them Bertolli, Carapelli and Antica Badia) have been investigated for fraud. In particular, they have been accused of passing off low quality olive oil for extra-virgin one (of higher quality and thus more expensive). The issue has not passed unnoticed since olive oil represents one of the most prominent products representing Italy and exported all over the world.

This is why politicians are not the only class worried about the issue. The main concern for the free trade of olive oil comes from Italian farmers. In particular the agriculture organization Coldiretti held a protest in Catania soon after the decision was made. Many people do not understand why, after an increase of imports of olive oil from Tunisia to Italy in 2015, they would have extended this favor to a free access to the EU market for more years. The President of Coldiretti, Roberto Moncalvo, talked of an attack to the ‘Made in Italy.’ Another concern is that this new amendment can lead to more frauds in the olive oil sector. The organization and its members fear that Italian oil can be mixed with low quality oil and then labeled and packed in a way that gives it the resemblance of being pure Italian. As a consequence, Tunisian oil can be and then sold for a special price and put easily in the international market. Moreover, producers are worried about another danger: that the weather condition and the plant pathogen Xylella Fastidiosa can further damage olive groves as it happened in Puglia in 2014.

What is most surprising is that the protests against the amendment come also from Tunisia itself. More than protests, it is better saying abstentions. In fact, many Tunisian civil society organizations decided to set aside the issue of a new free trade area between the EU and Tunisia. Among these, the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights and the Tunisian League of Human Rights have expressed their concerns about this new step toward an economic alliance with the EU. They stated that the uncertainty of the government and civil society is an obstacle to what are the concrete objectives of Tunisian economy at the moment. Even economists have warned the country against undertaking strong relationships with the EU. They see in the EU extreme generosity an interest-based mission that will not improve the Tunisian economy.

The assurance the EU gave to the skeptics was a list of safeguards, such as:

  • a mid-term evaluation to assess if the plan will be going to damage the EU economies;
  • the temporarity of the amendment with no extensions further than two years;
  • a traceability of the products to make sure that it comes directly from Tunisia.

However, the critics have not been placated and there are still doubts on the outcomes that the implementation of the plan will mean during these two years. The immediate result is that the plan has caused many hesitations. Both Tunisian and Italian experts of the sector are worried about the low cost of labor that it will bring, the destabilization of the agricultural sectors in Italy, Greece and Spain, the increase of the external deficits, and the Tunisian lack of decision in the economic regulations.

Many questions arise from this controversial plan: how can this economic ‘reform’ help Tunisia in its fight against terrorism? By now it is not clear whether the EU is asking for something in return to the free olive oil trade. What is sure is that economically speaking Tunisia needs structural and concrete reforms that should help to deal with the imbalances between the Western and Eastern regions of the country, and most of all it needs to create more job opportunities. In this framework, the help that the EU is giving is small and limited. But even if it will slightly improve the recovery of the Tunisian economy, what will the results  be for the EU economies based on olive oil exports?

Although the issue involves a nexus that goes further behind economy, that is the terrorism-political nexus, how can this little help fight the shade of terrorism in the country? What the EU is suggesting is economic advantages in return for political and security reforms. The “help them at home” strategy adopted by the EU is not exactly what nationalist parties have dreamt of. If from one hand it slightly helps Tunisian in their homeland, it will also damage Europeans from inside. Again, the EU has been driven by the political interests of a few without any spirit of cooperation.

Giuliana Scalia

Master’s Degree in Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (University of Catania)


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