AHEAD OF THE G8 SUMMIT IN DEAUVILLE, WHERE THE WORLD BANK PLEDGED SUPPORT WORTH $ 6 BILLION TO TUNISIA AND EGYPT, I DISCUSSED CRUCIAL ISSUES WITH ABDELHAMID TRIKI, TUNISIA’S MINISTER FOR PLANNING AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION.
Which political tasks lay ahead for your country?
Let me emphasise that the Tunisian revolution resulted from economic reasons; public frustration led to demands for the freedoms of speech and assembly. Accordingly, we are currently working on a democratic reform to ensure our right to vote. Tunisia’s next elections (24 July) will take place under international supervision. It will probably take another six months before the referendum on our new constitution can be held. Afterwards, we will elect a president, who will enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of all people. Tunisia’s next president will be fully accountable to them.
What kind of economic reforms are planned?
During the revolution, everybody had his own expectations for the government. They especially concerned bread, salaries, jobs and corruption. Economically speaking, Tunisia needs, above all, an orderly government.
What do you mean by orderly?
Look, the core problem at the end of former president Ben Ali’s rule was declining investments by private individuals. Yes, our economy produced growth, but at the same time, our private sector was shrinking by around two per cent annually. We lost around 35 million dinars each year. Three consequences are now inevitable: First of all, we have to foster the development of civil society. Second, there needs to be public access to all kinds of information and statistics. Third, the trade in our markets must be made transparent – that is the only way to increase the share of private-sector investment. Our nation will soon have a computer-supported administration to make numbers and data more transparent. In addition, we are currently reforming our banking sector.
Please give a tangible example.
Well, let’s take our banking laws. Until today, we have had, de facto, no clear laws on who selects banks’ supervisory boards. Consider this: in theory, any public servant can be made a board member. Clear rules for such positions will lead to better bank management in the future, and that matters for running a fully operational microfinance system, for example in support of our citizens who are returning from Libya as refugees and who were mostly born in Tunisia’s poorest regions. Such support will help them to play their role in re-starting the regional economy.
Domestic media have criticised Tunisia’s stock exchange saying it is unattractive to foreign investors. How will foreign investors find easier access?
Look, foreign direct investment is already possible all over Tunisia without any problem, with up to 100 % foreign ownership in a company. On the stock market, however, it is true that, if foreign shareholders want to acquire more than 50 % of a company’s shares, they need the approval of a commission which is supervised by the prime minister. Once investors have that permit, nothing stands in their way. In the banking sector, the foreign stake in more than a third of all publicly listed institutions is already above 50 %. But yes, we must gradually reduce the restrictions on foreign ownership. Tunisia can achieve that in two to three years.
What about the social problems? There is still no orderly procedure for collective wage negotiations. What must foreign companies know if they want to invest or are considering to set up a production line in your country?
In the first days of our revolution, many people demonstrated outside of factories. Even citizens who did not belong to the staff voiced their dissatisfactions there. Many business leaders in Tunisia understood that. As for the alleged lack of procedures, I do not agree. We have a trade union in Tunisia. Let’s not forget, however, that our entire system is undergoing change at the moment; things are in flux. So two more trade unions will probably be formed in the coming months. Our new won freedoms of assembly and speech are signs of democracy. Ultimately, we are not suffering from structural problems that foreign aid could help us resolve. The real issue is mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence within our society. In the weeks of unrest, many workers protected the companies they work for. That clearly showed that Tunisians live in a completely new environment today. Collective wage bargaining is no longer off-limits; it is legitimate. Citizens really are assuming political responsibility. The new sense of social cohesion is probably the best guarantee for the future of any enterprise. Today, everybody accepts that change is not reversible. The most important lesson we learned is that we must listen to the people, creating dialogue between each other – without resorting to the police and banning strikes.
What is happening to young graduates and refugees, who have no jobs?
At the moment, we have more than 500,000 unemployed workers in our country. While Europe was thinking about how to send back 20,000 refugees from Lampedusa, Tunisia had – and still has – to deal with an influx of 300,000 people who are fleeing from Libya to our country with very different backgrounds. For the time being, we are working on helping the needy with microcredit schemes. To compensate for our suffering tourism sector, France and Italy have given us lots of money. We are also getting foreign aid – from Germany, for instance – for job market interventions. That will not solve our problems immediately, but we are working to make things better.
How can Germany help?
Germany can be of great help by pushing our cause in regard to our stalled negotiations with the European Union. The political blockade against Tunisia becoming a privileged partner was relaxed, and we achieved what always seemed impossible within a few month. We must carry on in this direction. In Brussels, Germany should be more active in arguing our case. If we do not push ahead it really will be difficult to provide enough jobs in Tunisia’s rural interior regions and to improve the opportunities for young graduates.
The Jasmine Revolution started out in poor, coastal regions. What kind of future will Tunisia have as Europe’s hub for Algerian and Libyan trade if you focus on the hinterland? What kind of future role do you see Tunisia playing in the Arab world?
We have privileged relationships with Libya and a relatively good understanding with Algeria. There are undeniable underlying reasons. At the same time, Tunisia is undergoing a transition, both in political and economic terms. Of course, our economy slowed down after the revolution, as is the case after every revolution. But good growth rates will return. The things must now move fast so we can achieve long-term success. All Arab countries, not just Tunisia, are destined to become more democratic. There is no going back.