EU leaders discuss migration curbs, aid in Tunisia
Top EU figures met with the Tunisian president to discuss a rise in attempted migration to Europe
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrived in Tunisia on Sunday for talks on migration and possible financial aid with the country's president.
Von der Leyen said the European Commission is considering providing Tunisia with an aid package of up to €900 million ($970 million).
If a "necessary agreement" can be found, she added, the aid would be delivered as part of a five-point program that includes tougher action against illegal migration.
The European leaders' visit comes as the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, says most migrants recently registering in Italy came from the North African country, which is in the grips of a worsening economic crisis.
Ahead of the trip, Tunisian President Kais Saied said his country was not prepared to protect the borders of other countries.
What's on the agenda?
Although the EU delegation will discuss increased cooperation with Tunisia on economic and energy issues, a major focus of talks is likely to be the growing number of migrants seeking to enter the EU via irregular methods.
According to the Italian Interior Ministry, more than 53,800 migrants have reached Italy over the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, up from 21,700 at the same time last year.
Most of the irregular entries came via Tunisia, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has said.
Many Tunisians are motivated to take the dangerous sea journey by their country's dire economic situation and high unemployment.
Italy's far-right Meloni said ahead of the trip that the EU would offer aid to Tunisia to help mitigate the crisis.
"Tunisia is a priority, because destabilization in Tunisia would have serious repercussions on the stability of all Northern Africa, and those repercussions inevitably arrive here [Italy]," Meloni said on Thursday.
The EU recently struck a deal on stricter measures against "irregular migration" that critics say represents a violation of basic human rights.
The plan may still meet resistance at the European Parliament.
What is the situation in Tunisia?
On Friday, Tunisian debt was downgraded further into "junk" territory by the Fitch credit ratings agency.
The move underscores the possibility that the country could default on its loans, something that could cause state finances to collapse and lead to much hardship for the country's population.
A rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been stalled for months, as Saied has refused to implement the economic reforms on which it is contingent, despite urgings from Italy and donor countries.
Saied has warned that the required reforms, which include cuts to flour and fuel subsidies and to the large public administration sector, as well as the privatization of loss-making public companies, would cause social unrest.
Meloni said that the European delegation would bring a packet of security initiatives that will pave the way for the IMF help.