BRUSSELS — Tunisia denied entry to a group of European Parliament lawmakers planning an official visit to the North African country, due to get under way Thursday.
The group of MEPs from the Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, led by Germany’s Michael Gahler, were blocked from entering Tunisia on Wednesday evening.
“This delegation will not be allowed to enter national territory,” the Tunisian government wrote in a letter seen by POLITICO addressed to the EU’s embassy in Tunis.
The move comes after the European Commission struck a controversial deal with Tunisia in July to stem migration flows to Europe. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised the agreement as a template for similar deals with other countries in her State of the European Union speech on Wednesday, despite mounting criticism from the Parliament, NGOs and national governments including Germany.
The Parliament’s delegation condemned the Tunisian authorities’ action and demanded an official explanation. “This conduct is unprecedented since the democratic revolution in 2011,” the MEPs wrote in a statement.
Tunisian authorities gave no motivation for the decision, however two Parliament officials said that the government was allegedly offended by a press conference held by MEPs in July criticizing the country’s democratic backsliding.
President Kais Saied’s government has come under scrutiny for alleged human rights violations against sub-Saharan Africans and for a violent crackdown on domestic opposition.
The refusal to admit the MEPs will likely fuel further criticism of the Commission’s migration deal, which offers funding to Tunisia in exchange for help blocking boats that have been carrying a growing number of migrants to Europe. But critics have already noted that migrant arrivals from Tunisia to Italy have soared since the agreement was signed in July.
The vice president of the center-left Socialists and Democrats, Pedro Marques, described Tunisia’s decision to deny entry to the group as “outrageous,” and urged von der Leyen to scrap the migration deal. “Funding an authoritarian regime that doesn’t respect human rights and denies democratic dialogue between institutions to externalize migration management is a huge political mistake,” he wrote in a statement to POLITICO.
The Dutch centrist MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld said that the decision by the Tunisian government was “in no way surprising.”
“What did they expect would happen? The deal is already failing, it has no proper legal basis and it costs a lot of taxpayer money,” she told POLITICO.
Ahead of the group’s planned visit, the delegation said that it had requested to meet with Tunisian government officials — but an official agenda from Wednesday showed only engagements with civil society, NGOs and opposition figures.