Since the start of the year, the number of people fleeing North Africa by boat to the European Union has increased significantly. Even though some of them are people on the move from sub-Saharan Africa, using countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as transit points, many are locals who can no longer make a living in their own country.
The EU has scrambled to block more people from crossing the Mediterranean by intensifying its surveillance and militarisation of its southern sea borders. But it has also reached out to regional governments to get their help in stemming migration.
In the case of Tunisia, the EU and Tunisian President Kaïs Saied signed a deal called the “Comprehensive Partnership Package”. In return for stopping the flow of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, Tunis is to get 255 million euros ($269m) for equipment, training and financial support. It could also receive a further 900 million euros ($953m) should it reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund for structural economic reforms, including controversial cuts to its food subsidy programme.
In terms of the trade component of the deal, the memorandum of understanding outlines, inter alia, plans for investments in agriculture, green energy and digital transition. While it remains to be seen how this memorandum will further take shape, it can be read as a continuation of the EU’s trade policies towards its southern neighbour which have been criticised for systematically disadvantaging Tunisian small and medium enterprises.
Against this backdrop, it appears unlikely that the migration deal will improve the situation for Tunisians, especially those from the rural areas who are trying to emigrate from the country en masse. In fact, the EU’s past and present trade policies towards Tunisia are much to blame for the misery of small-scale farmers and agricultural workers.
While EU companies have flooded the Tunisian market with EU-made products, Tunisian farmers have struggled to compete with their EU counterparts, not least due to the ways in which the EU continues to protect its domestic agricultural sector.
Sometimes EU protectionism takes the form of frustratingly simple things such as the fact that periods during which Tunisian products are granted privileged access to the EU market under a customs quota arrangement do not synch up with their production cycle in Tunisia. For example, in the case of watermelons, the main growing season is between June and September, yet the EU only grants duty-free imports between November and May.
The unequal economic exchange in agricultural trade relations between Tunisia and the EU is also apparent in the trade in olive oil, one of Tunisia’s top exports.
Olives are grown on prime irrigated agricultural land as a large-scale monoculture. Some 80 percent of the olive oil produced from them is exported, mostly in crude form, principally to Spain and Italy where it is refined and sold to European consumers. In the process, Tunisia loses out on significant added value.
Meanwhile, rising food prices in the country have meant that the consumption of olive oil is increasingly out of reach for ordinary Tunisians. Food remains the largest expense for Tunisian families, more costly than housing, electricity or water, representing on average 30 percent of annual household expenditure, and rising to nearly 40 percent for the lowest income groups.
More traditional olive growing, in contrast to monoculture industrial olive groves, involves older trees that are spaced out and require less water; it is thus better suited to more arid climates. Such agricultural practices used by small farmers for production for the domestic market are seen as unviable due to the lack of support they receive from the government.
As farmer Abdul Karim explained to me during a trade and agriculture policies workshop organised by the Tunisian Platform for Alternatives and the Transnational Institute in July in Tunis: “Traditional olive trees can live for 150 years. Support for olive growing is 2 dinars per olive tree while our cost of production is about 15-20 dinars per tree. We need support for water and for tractors. But in the absence of this support, my olive trees will dry out and die.”
Apart from olives, Tunisia is pressed to grow other agricultural products for export to the EU, including citrus fruits and vegetables. Some of them are also particularly water-intensive crops, which make little sense to grow in a country suffering from extreme water stress, droughts and wildfires.
Already in the fourth year of a prolonged drought and with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in July, the situation of Tunisian farmers will only get worse. Climate risk forecasts for Tunisia project that annual maximum temperatures are likely to increase by between 1.9C to 3.8C by 2050, while precipitation levels may fall by as much as 22 percent.
In response, the Tunisian government has instituted a series of measures to try to curb water use, including a limit on agricultural irrigation and a ban on groundwater pumping below 50 metres.
While these measures may sound reasonable, they have left Tunisian farmers struggling. Reduced rainfall means farmers must resort to tapping groundwater sources to irrigate their crops and trees, and to provide drinking water for their animals. Yet declining groundwater levels mean that water cannot be found until 80 metres deep, Abdul Karim told me. Farmers have no other choice but to dig deeper or face economic ruin.
Farmers we spoke to complained that while they face the risk of being criminalised for using water to survive, the government turns a blind eye to wealthy investors who are buying up land for olive production and digging deepwater wells in an unregulated fashion. These wells can be up to 200-300 metres deep, according to Yasser, a Tunisian natural resource management engineer who also participated in the aforementioned workshop.
All this means that small-scale farmers, who are in the majority in Tunisia, are caught between the crushing forces of an unfair external trade policy, and an internal government policy tailored to the needs of a few big market players. They cannot make a living out of farming any more, and many have no other option than to emigrate.
The EU agreement with Tunisia to boost trade relations and stem the flow of people trying to make it to European shores is a blatant refusal to deal with some of the underlying causes of migration. Trade policies favouring European markets will not improve the socioeconomic situation for Tunisians in rural areas.
In the context of multiple and intersecting crises, agricultural and trade policy in Tunisia and the broader North Africa region must be reimagined. If the EU really wants to address what it calls a “migration crisis”, it needs to rethink its extractive trade policies with the rest of the world, and not enter agreements that only lead to more precarity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.