Barr al Aman

DCFTA / Tunisia: Negotiating in the dark

This article was written by Fadil Aliriza in collaboration with the editorial board of Barr al Aman

A new trade agreement between Tunisia and the European Union is at work and is raising crucial questions. The consequences on Tunisian sovereignty, its agricultural sector and its access to medicines might be at the core of this agreement. 

With over six years of discussion, two years of formal negotiations, 2019 – the deadline set by the European Union in order to adopt the DCFTA or Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement – is now right around the corner. And yet, at the dawn of such a decision, it seems that the Tunisians are utterly unaware of the very content of the agreement. 

The issue is “sensitive”, according to a civil servant working at the Tunisian Minister of Investment and International Cooperation who suggested the journalists should consult the website “ALECA.tn” in order to get more substantial information on the matter.

It is a website with an official-like appearance, proudly displaying the European and the Tunisian flags with the motto “for a real partnership and a better integration of Tunisia within the global economy”. 

The Tunisian presidency is the domain name’s holder. However, no mention is made of the sources of funding for such a tool. No information sheet of the different topics being negotiated is available in Arabic, although they are partly so in English and completely so in French. 

The DCFTA’s topics

  • Trade of agricultural and fishery products
  • Sanitary and phytosanitary rules (SPS)
  • Technical barriers to trade (TBT)
  • Trade and sustainable development 
  • Trade and investment in services 
  • Investment jurisdictional system and dispute settlement 
  • The protection of intellectual property
  • Trade protection measures
  • Public procurement
  • Rules on Competition and State’s support
  • Custom procedures
  • Transparency rules
  • Small and medium-sized businesses
  • The measures related to trade in energy and raw materials

Source : Article “Les domaines concernés par l’ALECA” (01/01/2019)

A difficult access to information

In early October, the Tunisian Forum on Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) organized a two-day international conference on the DCFTA in Tunis. 

The organizers declared that the event was created, so as to connect people working in sectors that will be affected by the trade agreement.  The goal was to contextualize this agreement and, ultimately, to constitute a group of specialists capable of articulating an informed criticism regarding the DCFTA, in its current form. 

As the conference was running, the FTDES published a document analysing the DCFTA and exposing the perception of Tunisian experts, mostly from civil society and unions. Yet, among these specialists of the Tunisian key economic sectors, there was a tremendous lack of knowledge about the content. For instance, among the 13 experts interrogated in the document, only one knew the DCFTA’s mechanism for dispute settlements, whereas it allows the foreign investors to sue the Tunisian state more easily. 

The FTDES’ report observed that “none of the interviewed persons considers that they have an important influence on the negotiations. They consider the process opaque, the access to information inadequate and they blame the government for the absence of a real substantial discussion”. 

Furthermore, the Tunisian Forum on Economic and Social Rights’ report quotes a poll carried out by Sigma Conseil and presented during a conference organised by SynAgri (Farmers’ Syndicate) and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Tunis on April 10th, 2018. 

The study shows that 90% of the agricultural workers were not aware of the existence of the DCFTA, currently being negotiated. 

The challenge of accessing negotiation

The Tunisian Forum on Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) thus offered to produce a thorough impact assessment on each sector of the economy in order to provide the Tunisian lawmakers with more data and thus allow a better balance of the agreement’s net positive – or negative – impact on the Tunisian economy. 

“We do have a few studies on this agreement, but what we are really missing is a better understanding of the agreement’s consequences”, this is what declared Marco Jonville, the author of the FTDES’s report on the DCFTA and a researcher at the economic department of the FTDES. “We also need to know what people think and what they would consider as positive for the country because, to date, the suggested texts come from the EU, Tunisians are only reacting to them, at best. What are the suggestions and ideas of Tunisian stakeholders, whether they come from the economic or the agricultural sector, whether they are a CEOs or union members? This report’s goal was to pay attention to the Tunisian citizens’ suggestions.” 

DC-FT-A, divide and conceal?

The negotiations between the Tunisians and the Europeans on the DCFTA’s layout are still ongoing. The third negotiation round – and most recent one – took place from December 10th to 14th 2018. Samir Bettaïeb, the Tunisian Minister of Agriculture asserted on Shems FM on December 21th 2018 that the primary sector wasn’t ready for the DCFTA yet.

Ministers, civil society stakeholders or professionals agree wholeheartedly with him. And yet, some of the treaty’s measures are already enforced by Tunisian law. 

The PPP “private-public-partnerships”, the validity of European patents in Tunisia and international dispute-settlement are already a reality. The process of alignment of the Tunisian legislation with the European “acquis communautaire” is continuous and de facto excluded from the negotiations. 

Simultaneously, the EU “exerts a pressure on the Tunisian legislator, through the conditions that accompany the loans it grants to Tunisia. This was the case for the Macro-Financial Assistance loans of 2014 and 2016”, according to Maha Ben Gadha working in the economic program of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – North Africa.

Trnaslation to English: An Hoang-Xuan

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