Tunisian Diplomacy Day: Interview with Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Ammar
An experienced diplomat who has worked in London, Brussels and Damascus, Nabil Ammar, who was appointed in early February to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, advocates a return to the basics of Tunisian diplomacy: respect for international legality, defending multilateralism and non-interference in internal affairs, without abandoning what is essential, the independence of national choices, or national sovereignty and stability.
Tunisian diplomacy, to which a national day is dedicated each year on May 3, remains committed to defending the country's priority interests, contributing to the achievement of the strategic objectives of general policy and looking after the interests of Tunisians living abroad. Nabil Ammar intends to remain faithful to this motto and is determined to restore Tunisia's image and enhance its position as an indispensable and reliable partner.
In an exclusive interview with TAP news agency, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Migration and Tunisians Abroad, Nabil Ammar, elaborated on issues of the day. The priorities of Tunisian diplomacy in the current international situation, relations with traditional partners, irregular migration, the BRICS, the IMF and the restoration of relations with Syria.
For the chief diplomat, a country's international policy should "build consensus" and "gather all sensitivities". Diplomacy is "the first line of defence" and its mandate is to defend Tunisia's interests.
Q: Since you have been at the head of Tunisian diplomacy, you have been at the forefront and on all fronts of strengthening national sovereignty and advocating non-interference in Tunisia's internal affairs. Where does Tunisia stand today in the face of this diplomatic barrage?
A: It is important to explain the situation in which Tunisia finds itself after the last decade. The situation is difficult at all levels, and Tunisians are well aware of this. It is necessary to inform Western public opinion and our partners about the specifics of this situation, because this public opinion has a certain influence on the attitude of their leaders.
This is the niche that must be exploited so that the leaders of the partner countries do not just say what they want.
That is why it was necessary to set the record straight on the difficulties we have experienced since 2011, with their share of disappointments. Frustrations that have allowed Tunisians to become aware of the critical situation and to decide in their souls and consciences to take their destiny into their own hands and to assert their expectations.
The expectations of the Tunisian people could not be clearer. It goes without saying that you cannot have socio-economic indicators at half-mast for more than a decade and a satisfied population at the same time.
On July 25, 2021, Tunisians expressed their dissatisfaction and showed their support for the President of the Republic, who decided to take matters into his own hands. Personally, I am convinced of the validity of the process initiated by the President of the Republic.
The Tunisian people voted massively for President Kaïs Saïed, who could not allow the state to disintegrate.
Unfortunately, Tunisian diplomacy did not follow this momentum. It had to react quickly to defend Tunisia's choices and avoid any misunderstanding.
I personally believe that the Foreign Ministry failed in that task because Tunisia was unable to defend itself. Today I have this responsibility and I intend to fulfil it.
Our partners and international public opinion are beginning to see things more clearly. As long as we are convinced of our choices, we pay little attention to the speeches of some.
Tunisia is within its rights. We are no longer in the configuration that prevailed before 2011 (...) It is absurd to think that the country's situation has worsened and deteriorated more than thirty years ago, as some people tend to repeat. On the contrary, we are in a completely different context and it is unacceptable to continue to feed this amalgam.
There is no way to install a dictatorship today. Tunisians will not wait for anyone or any partner to defend their freedoms; if they feel they are threatened, they will take to the streets to defend them.
Tunisians must understand what is at stake. The first is to get the country's economy back on track. We have important assets and human capital; this is the time to unite everything. Only then can we succeed.
Some dissonant voices, in power for more than eleven years and enjoying unprecedented support from Tunisia's partners, have failed to deliver. Today, they have chosen to boycott the main electoral events, depriving themselves of any legitimate voice. Unfounded criticism undermines Tunisia's image and leads to a loss of income for the country's international reputation.
What morality is there in asking for support from abroad when the country is free and open? Tunisians of all persuasions must show solidarity and cohesion. Today, they must agree on the essentials, because this is a crucial moment. All Tunisians must understand and get the message. That is why we have to react; we have to raise our voices and defend our positions clearly.
Q: The influx of migrants from Tunisia to the EU recorded a tenfold increase in irregular arrivals in the first quarter of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. Italy has declared a state of emergency on migration for the next six months. Does Tunisia have the necessary logistics to stem the flow of migrants, especially as several African countries are in conflict? Has Italy expressed its intention to invest materially and logistically in this matter?
Italy, the European Union and our foreign partners are well aware that irregular migration is beyond the capacity of any single country, including Tunisia. It is a global scourge.
From a geographical point of view, Tunisia is affected by this issue because it is located on the Mediterranean migration route (the deadliest in the world), but it is not at the centre of this dynamic. We have insisted to our partners that the solution to this problem must involve all the countries affected by this phenomenon.
They must agree to fight against trafficking in human beings, and therefore against transnational organised crime.
Last Thursday, I had a very good discussion with the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Ylva Johansson, who welcomes cooperation with Tunisia.
We told her that we have very limited resourced to fight this phenomenon, although we are doing everything in our power to address it. The country is doing all it can, and even more with its limited resources.
For example, some countries (without naming them) refuse to rescue migrants at sea, whereas Tunisia does not hesitate to do so.
If our partners could provide us with more resources, the results would be more convincing. The real solution in the short and medium term is to get the Tunisian economy back on its feet.
Programmes have been set up with the European Union and they have proved their worth, but they have their limits. New prospects must be created.
Although the phenomenon of irregular migration needs to be reconsidered by all parties, there is no disagreement between Tunisia and the European Union on this issue.
The European Union has expressed its concerns about this phenomenon, which are shared by Tunisia, which has also become a destination country for would-be irregular migrants.
Tunisia remains a reliable partner, though some people accuse us of being Europe's policeman and of racism.
Throughout their history, Tunisians have been driven by the desire for freedom and dignity, values that they have passed on to the African continent. Today we are accused of racism, it's a conspiracy.
Q: According to a memo sent to the member states, the European Commission plans to tackle Tunisia's economic instability, which it says has led to this influx of migrants, and to focus on supporting Tunisia. Moreover, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, whom you have just received in audience, has reaffirmed the European Union's commitment to supporting Tunisia, including in the context of concerted migration management. What is concerted migration management for the European Union? And for Tunisia?
A: In fact, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship reaffirmed the European Union's commitment to support Tunisia and expressed the solidarity and the willingness of the European side to provide substantial support to consolidate national capacities to address the resurgence of this phenomenon that exceeds all countries.
During this meeting, we discussed ways to deepen cooperation between Tunisia and the European Union and I stressed that the real solution to irregular migration is to revitalise the Tunisian economy in order to keep migrants in their country of origin. The Tunisian economy must be revitalised in order to reduce the flow of Tunisian would-be migrants and to offer them job opportunities in their regions.
The European Commissioner's visit, the third of its kind to Tunisia, is part of a broader political commitment by the 27-member bloc to Tunisia and forms part of the strategic partnership between the EU and our country.
I explained to the European official that the messages from some of our partners about a possible "collapse of the Tunisian economy" do not help our country in the current situation.
All these negative and skeptical messages do not help the Tunisian economy and feed all the scourges, including that of illegal migration. Helping the Tunisian economy is a way to fight irregular migration.
It is the Tunisian economy that suffers from these comments. Moreover, these comments have little resonance with Tunisian public opinion, especially after the last decade. These comments undermine our efforts to rebuild our economy, and this is not in the interests of our partners.
Behind the statements of some Western officials are political and electoral ambitions and a desire to appease their national public opinion and electorate, especially in the run-up to the elections.
The problem of irregular migration needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner; it cannot be solved by security measures alone. It has to be tackled in a multidimensional way.
Moreover, we have ongoing programmes with the European Union. They just need to be deepened and developed.
The visit of the European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs was a renewed opportunity to establish a strengthened operational partnership in the fight against human trafficking. This include, support for the protection of Tunisia's maritime and southern borders, strengthening judicial and police cooperation and cooperation with relevant European agencies such as Eurojust and Europol, and raising awareness of the dangers of irregular migration through information campaigns to be launched in May and June and funded by the EU.
Both sides agreed to strengthen cooperation on the protection and return of Tunisian irregular migrants through increased EU support for voluntary returns.
We agreed to strengthen the existing mechanisms for accompanying Tunisian returnees by supporting the national reintegration mechanism "Tounesna."
Q: Tunisia and the EU have expressed the will to establish a partnership for the mobility of skilled and qualified professionals, to promote new vocational training and employment opportunities, and to improve the joint fight against trafficking in human beings and migrants. Will this mobility of skilled workers be formalised through bilateral agreements? Has the EU envisaged a quota in this context and does Tunisia intend to ask for one in return? What will be the main axes of this partnership and will it include an aspect of financial compensation?
A: There is a will to establish a partnership of talents to promote regular migration in the interest of both parties, according to their needs and for the benefit of jointly identified sectors and professions, and by ensuring an adapted response to prevent the risk of a brain drain.
To this end, a roundtable meeting with all the stakeholders concerned will be organised in May to define the contours and content of this partnership.
However, it is important that our skills remain in Tunisia and contribute to the development of the Tunisian economy.
We must not forget that these skills are trained with our resources and cost Tunisia a lot of money.
We are not here to channel the brain drain, but to seal agreements with the European Union in a win-win partnership.
So far, there is no quota. The negotiations are still at the stage of qualitative assessments. The profiles and sectors of cooperation have not yet been defined.
Q: Some observers see the IMF's delay in releasing the $1.9 billion financial package to Tunisia as a kind of pressure to obtain political and geostrategic overtones from Tunisian officials.
Do you think this is the case? Or is it simply a question of the reforms that need to be carried out in order to secure the loan?
A: I have always said, even when I was ambassador to Brussels and to the EU, that we have reached a point where pressure on Tunisia is counterproductive. Pressure can bring things to a point of no return. We hope that our partners are aware of this risk, because we believe that they have gone too far.
We have explained to them that there is a red line that must not be crossed: the stability of the country and social peace. The President of the Republic was very clear about this. The President of the Republic is the guarantor of the country's stability. His statements must be taken into account both in Tunisia and abroad. Our partners do not know the situation in Tunisia better than our highest officials.
Our partners should listen carefully to know the reality of the situation in Tunisia. Today's situation is the direct result of a decade of bad governance in the country. It goes without saying that our partners, by supporting successive governments after 2011, bear some of the responsibility, even if they try to hide it. I will remind them of this at every opportunity.
In addition, the situation on our borders with Libya and, more recently, the war in Ukraine have worked against our national economy.
Today, and for the first time since 2011, a single agenda has guided the actions of our leaders: to remedy a very difficult situation.
Our partners have promised to support us, but in reality, this is not the case. Hence the incoherence of their words.
Tunisia's economic progress and prosperity are in the strict interest of all parties. Our interests coincide with those of all our partners.
Negative news about our country has a direct and negative impact on the economic environment. They deter investors and tourists. For our partners to say that they support the Tunisian economy while at the same time sending skeptical messages is pure incoherence.
The Tunisian economy thrives when there is a positive image of the country. Tunisians should be fully aware of this direct link.
It is important for Tunisians to say to themselves that when we face difficulties, we must resolve them among Tunisians and never appeal to foreigners, to non-Tunisians. Our foreign partners are our friends, but they cannot interfere in our internal affairs.
A dispute within the same family must be resolved exclusively by its members. This is a personal position that I have always passionately defended.
Q: Several African and Arab countries, including Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are planning to join the BRICS, emerging powers that account for 24% of global GDP and 16% of international trade. Can this group provide an alternative to traditional partners and offer Tunisia better terms than the IMF? Is Tunisia ready to diversify its partners? Or to rely on itself and its own resources?
A: Maintaining excellent relations with all our partners, and they are diverse, is one of the strengths of Tunisian diplomacy. We have always worked to develop our interests with all our partners. It is very good that we have went back to the principles of Tunisian diplomacy, which is not to ally ourselves with any axis against another, and to develop and diversify our relations.
During the Cold War, Tunisia had excellent relations with all its partners, both the Warsaw Pact countries and the Western camp. We had very good relations with both sides. This is a major asset of Tunisian diplomacy.
The BRICS (an acronym for five countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the European Union and the United States are as much strategic partners as Russia or China.
Tunisia is doing its utmost to strengthen its ties of friendship and partnership with all countries. However, it is important not to focus on one axis to the detriment of another.
Our geographical location has facilitated our relations with different countries. Our ability to adapt and master foreign languages is also due to this cultural mix, the product of several civilisations that have succeeded in Tunisia and have strongly influenced it.
Q: Does the Tunisian diplomacy plan to start discussions with the EU on the access of Tunisians to the Schengen area, particularly with regard to visa-granting to Tunisians?
A: Within the framework of discussions with the European Union, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has pointed out that our citizens sometimes feel humiliated by these restrictive procedures. No distinction is made between different categories of visa applicants, including researchers and doctors. Everyone is treated the same. These countries defend themselves on the grounds of their lack of reception capacity.
Q: How did you manage to evacuate Tunisians from Sudan?
A: The evacuation was very difficult but successful. All the parties, led by the President of the Republic, reacted quickly.
In fact, our embassy was there and our ambassador personally accompanied the evacuees to the Egyptian border, where the army plane was waiting to take them back to Tunisia. Forty-six people arrived in Tunisia. Six people chose to stay in Egypt.
The whole evacuation operation required the right decisions to be taken urgently. It was organised quickly and the Foreign Affairs Department acted very quickly. We also found some very cooperative countries and we thank them for that.
The evacuees crossed the Sudanese-Egyptian border by bus, which was a very perilous crossing. The safe arrival of our compatriots was our priority. All parties involved worked in an optimal way, in collaboration with the Sudanese authorities who monitored the convoy until the Egyptian border.
Egypt, for its part, worked to facilitate the passage. This was not easy, especially as there were women and children to be evacuated.
For Sudan, we can only hope that the hostilities of the different parties to the conflict will stop and that there will be stability in the interests of this sisterly country.
Q: What are the prospects for restoring relations with Syria?
A: One of the first instructions I received from the President of the Republic, when he appointed me to my new post, was to restore diplomatic relations to their normal level with Syria, a brotherly country to which solid and very strong ties unite us.
Tunisians have a special place among Syrians. It is very good that we have returned to a normal situation.
Our new ambassador to Syria has just received his credentials, and the Syrians will soon appoint a new ambassador.
We will thus restore contact to its normal level. We have interests in Syria and so do the Syrians, so we must preserve and extend our common interests.
The visit of the Syrian Foreign Minister is historic in the sense that we are returning to a normal situation after "going off course".
Tunisia does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. It is not for us to decide who should lead the Syrians. This is a purely Syrian matter.
Source: Agence Tunis Afrique Presse