BRUSSELS — The European Ombudsman is probing the European Commission over its controversial migration deal with Tunisia.
In a letter from the EU ethics watchdog to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Ombudsman is seeking answers regarding the protection of human rights in the deal, which was agreed in July with Tunisian President Kais Saied’s authoritarian government.
The Tunisian strongman has come under fire from the U.N. for his “racist” treatment of sub-Saharan Africans and his violent clampdown on domestic opposition.
“Where fundamental rights are not respected, there cannot be good administration,” European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly wrote in a letter addressed to von der Leyen on Wednesday evening, which was made public Friday morning.
The inquiry comes amid mounting criticism of the agreement, which promises EU cash to Tunisia in exchange for help stopping migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Members of the European Parliament, nongovernmental organizations and EU member countries including Germany have criticized the deal on the grounds that it ignores human rights and strengthens Saied’s authoritarian rule. Earlier this week, the Tunisian government denied entry to a delegation of EU lawmakers on an official mission to Tunis — the MEPs had previously criticized democratic backsliding in the country.
Regardless, von der Leyen has continued to back the deal, describing it as a template for similar agreements with other North African countries in her State of the European Union speech on Wednesday.
In her letter, the European Ombudsman pressed the Commission on how it intends to guarantee that Tunisian authorities respect human rights. It pointed out that the EU executive should need to conduct a human rights assessment before signing deals with foreign countries.
“Does the Commission intend to carry out a periodic, systematic and effective HRIA [human rights impact assessment] of actions undertaken in the course of the implementation of the MoU?” O’Reilly wrote in the letter.
The pact offers €105 million to support Tunisia’s border control operations, and an extra €150 million to prop up the country’s budget amid soaring inflation. But no cash has yet been disbursed, as Brussels and Tunis are still hammering out details, which EU countries would also have to sign off on.
The watchdog expressed fears that the Tunisian government could even use EU cash to carry out human rights abuses.
“Has the Commission defined criteria for the potential suspension of funds due to non-respect for human rights?” the Ombudsman asked.
A Commission spokesperson said that the respect of human rights “is being addressed through regular structured dialogue with government and civil society, as well as through targeted development assistance.”
The Commission’s deadline to reply is December 13. After that point, the ethics watchdog could open an investigation into whether the EU executive acted wrongfully and eventually issue a nonbinding recommendation.