(By Eugenio Dacrema*)


On 8-9 February, the Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi visited Italy where he met Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, the President of Republic Sergio Mattarella, and addressed the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Italian Parliament. The event was only briefly reported by the Italian media, in these days mostly engaged (as many others worldwide) in covering the latest eccentricities of the new American President and/or the developments of the conflict against Isis (and accidentally sometimes also of the Syrian civil war).

By reading the few Italian reports on the Tunisian President’s visit one gets the clear impression of what the relations with Tunisia – and with most other Arab countries – are about from the Italian perspective. The words “immigration” and “security”, followed by “terrorism”, are the most used in the description of the topics treated in the diplomatic meetings. They are followed, only by far, by “development”, mostly kept generic and regarded as a means to achieve, once again, cooperation on “immigration” and “security”. In the specific case of Tunisia, “Libya” is also a word popping out often given the geographical proximities between the two countries. Libya is in fact the real priority of Italy’s Mediterranean foreign policy, especially in the last months. The reasons, once again, have to do with the aforementioned words “immigration” and “security”, although in this case the second is meant to be preceded by the adjective “energetic”.

The problem, in sum, is the static and rigid approach that Italy has towards most Southern Mediterranean countries and the consequent incapacity to elaborate alternative diplomatic approaches taking fully into account the specific political, social, and economic features of each country. For almost two decades the approach towards most Mediterranean Arab countries (those in the Gulf show often other “features” of interest) has been centered on the management of immigration and security (conceived often as overlapping concepts). Other aspects, such as economic treaties and regulations or, secondarily, cultural and developmental cooperation, has been managed mostly at the European level while other specific bilateral political and cultural issues have been marginalized. In general, there are major difficulties, both at the institutional and the media level, to see Tunisia as a whole and not just as a context where terrorism threats or migration flows (and, in better times, sunny holidays) are generated. A whole constituted by an increasingly sophisticated society struggling with the transition from a dictatorship from which it autonomously and peacefully liberated itself (something that not many European countries such as Spain, Germany or Italy can claim).

This is an approach detrimental for Italy for at least two simple reasons: First, the geographical proximity between the two countries (one of the first things you get to learn in Tunisia is that Tunis is the closest capital to Rome, repeated in different versions 100-200 times) which makes cooperation in any matters, especially economic, potentially particularly advantageous. The second reason, consequential from the first, are the strong cultural ties linking the two countries coupled by the ongoing presence of a significant historical Italian community whose history and potential support for today’s cooperation have always been mostly, and regrettably, neglected.

But this kind of rigid and monothematic approach is hardly only an Italian problem. It is generally spread among the EU members and has been contagious even to the European Institutions themselves, despite decades of commitment (and money spent) for the support of local civil society and democracy promotion. Seen from this perspective, it is like in the last years the EU has been unexplainably ignoring one of the few countries that have been able to really incarnate the ideal aspirations that are technically at the core of the European project.

One example, I think, is striking of this approach: the Italian – and generally European – media cover of the Bardo terrorist attack in 2015. That day, immediately after the first news filtered on Italian newspapers and TVs, the events of the Bardo were framed as simply an Islamic terrorist attack against foreign tourists inside a Tunisian museum. The fact that the museum was located in the same building of the Tunisian Parliament – or that according to some accounts the Parliament was initially the primary target – was almost never mentioned. How would the narrative have been constructed if the same attack had taken place in a museum attached to the Italian or French Parliament? That day I collaborated with my friend and Italian MP Lia Quartapelle in the writing of an article that aimed at framing what was happening as primarily the attack against the Parliament building of a fellow democracy, in the foreign capital that is the closest to Rome (I had learnt that well); but it was like a drop in a sea characterized by a very different – and security-oriented – narrative.

To be fair, something has been slowly changing at least in the high-level institutional approach to Tunisia. It has been recognized that the economic problems – and the consequent social problems – are key to solving security and immigration issues in the long term. The latest agreement reached on immigration contains some interesting and insightful commitment regarding economic and socioeconomic cooperation. However, the main narrative passing through the media and the consequent perception of Tunisia throughout the general public have hardly changed. Tunisia is still mainly a country with which we should cooperate primarily for security and immigration issues. Even the economic cooperation descends from it, as a means to stop radicalization and emigration. Very little of the new political and social dimension of the post-Revolution Tunisia has been able to really surface. In 2015 I participated in the writing of a document that was later transformed in a parliamentary resolution containing some suggestions for the Italian government about political and economic policies regarding Tunisia. The first point was about supporting the concession to Tunisia of the “observer status” in the Council of Europe, a way to recognize the impressive developments achieved by the country.  This point was followed by a few others, mostly economic, which were debated and some adopted. But nobody seems to have taken seriously the first one. Not in Rome, not in Brussels, but not even in Tunis. This article is not the place to fully treat the topic and I am not that familiar with the Tunisian internal political scene and debate to really argue about it. But, to be honest, sometimes I wonder how this kind of detrimental security-oriented and (let’s call things with their names) patronizing approach is just a problem of the Italian and European side of the relationship.

(* Eugenio Dacrema is PhD candidate at the University of Trento, Italy, and currently visiting scholar at the American University of Beirut. He is a research associate with the Italian think tank ISPI, and collaborates with several Italian newspapers such as Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio. He regularly writes policy documents on the MENA region for the Italian parliament.)