Documents considered by the Committee on 2 February 2011 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

10   The EU and Tunisia


Council Decision concerning restrictive measures directed against certain persons and entities in view of the situation in Tunisia

Legal baseArticle 29 TEU; unanimity
DepartmentForeign and Commonwealth Office
Basis of considerationEM and Minister's letter of 28 January 2011
Previous Committee ReportNone
To be discussed in Council31 January 2011
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared


10.1  This is described below.

The draft Council Decision

10.2  The Council Decision provides a basis for the freezing of funds and economic resources against "persons responsible for misappropriation of Tunisian State funds, and who are thus depriving the Tunisian people of the benefits of the sustainable development of their economy and society and undermining the development of democracy in the country"

The Government's view

10.3  The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington) begins his Explanatory Memorandum of 28 January 2011 by recalling that over the past month there has been widespread unrest in Tunisia, and continues as follows:

"The level of unrest had been unprecedented during the entire 23 years of the former President Ben Ali's tenure. The protests were sparked by an incident on 17 December when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate, set himself aflame in protest against a municipal guard who had allegedly assaulted him and confiscated the vegetables he was selling from a market stall for which he did not have a permit. This led to major protests across the country with daily clashes between protesters and the police.

"At the time, the government responded to some of the concerns raised by protesters but the demonstrations did not abate. We judged at the time that the government was not at imminent risk if they could show that they were responding to the underlying grievances and act with restraint in handling the demonstrations. It was clear that the demonstrations underlined the need for Tunisia to address more determinedly human development and human rights' issues which appeared to have prompted them.

"Following further protests, President Ben Ali resigned on 14 January and fled the country for Saudi Arabia. The Parliamentary Speaker Mebazza became interim President and Ben Ali's Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, is in the process of establish [sic] a government of national unity, including all legal opposition parties.

"However, the security situation remains precarious, with the army struggling to retain control. There are reports of looting and local militias operating across the countries [sic] and a number of prison outbreaks. Protests against the government (still run by Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party) continue."

10.4  The Minister goes on to say that the new Tunisian Government has formally requested that EU Member States instigate an asset freeze against the former President, his wife, family members and others, whilst investigations into the alleged corruption of the former regime are pending; and notes that, to date, the only EU Member State to have taken domestic action is France.

10.5  The Minister then describes the priorities of the new Tunisian transition government as "to re-establish order, to set the base for the democratisation of society and of the political system, and to address the economic and social problems which were at the root of the popular uprising", going on to say that it is "of strategic importance that the UK supports that emerging democratisation process from the outset", and that one of the ways in which the Government can do this is "by supporting the anti-corruption activities of the transitional Government."

10.6  It is against this background, the Minister says, that the EU has proposed to adopt this Council Decision:

"in order to put in place a mechanism by which to freeze misappropriated assets. The effect of this will send a positive message to the interim Tunisian Government of support, whilst ensuring the uniform and consistent application of the asset freeze across the EU. However, the asset freeze will not enable Member States to seize any assets deemed to have been corruptly obtained, or return them to the Tunisian State. Further action, either through the EU, or domestically, will need to be taken in order to put such measures in place."

10.7  The Minister also explains

  • it will be necessary to adopt an EU Council Regulation in order to give effect to the asset freeze;
  • the Regulation will be directly applicable in UK law, although domestic legislation is required for enforcement measures, and to create penalties, in each EU Member State;
  • the procedures for designating individuals subject to the asset freeze are compliant with fundamental rights, i.e., individuals may only be listed where evidence exists that they are engaged in the activities listed under Article 1 of the Council Decision and be able to challenge their listing before the General Court of the European Union.

10.8  The Minister concludes by stating that the Council Decision is scheduled to be adopted at the Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January 2011.

The Minister's letter of 28 January 2011

10.9  After repeating much of the explanation for and the purpose of the proposed Council Decision, the Minister says:

"It is necessary to adopt the measures in the Decision in order to provide a basis upon which to adopt a Council Regulation, which will give the asset freeze its direct effect in EU Member States.

"I regret that any delay to agreeing to freeze these assets would risk undermining the firm statements on the intention to support democratisation in Tunisia made by the Foreign Secretary. It would send an unhelpful message to the new Tunisian interim government that the international community was weakening its stance. As a result, I will have to agree to the adoption of this Decision before your Committee has cleared it from scrutiny. The failure to allow your Committee to fully scrutinise the Decision came about as a result of negotiations on the EU's response to the emerging situation, and the necessity to positively respond to a request from the interim Government in Tunisia requesting that the EU put in place such restrictions on illegally obtained public funds."

10.10  Although the Minister makes no mention of it, this proposal is part of a broader EU response. Most recently, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) has confirmed the EU's solidarity with the Tunisian people in their efforts to build a stable and pluralistic democracy with full respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms; expressed the EU's hope that the transitional Government will be able to organize free and fair democratic parliamentary and presidential elections as soon as possible; welcomed the liberation of political prisoners; and stressed that freedom of association and legalization of all political parties are key components for the transition. She has also confirmed the EU's readiness to provide its assistance and expertise for the preparation and organization of the electoral process and political reforms, underscoring the need to help and empower civil society and noting that the EU will review and update its strategy and assistance. The HR also emphasised the EU's commitment to continue economic cooperation and the need for investors to redouble their confidence in Tunisia. The Tunisian Foreign Minister is said to have welcomed the EU's engagement and the offer to accompany his country's transition towards democracy with assistance, and to have agreed to meet the HR in the coming days.[28]


10.11   Any decision to over-ride scrutiny is regrettable, which the Minister acknowledges in his letter.

10.12  However, on this occasion and in the circumstances that he describes, we accept the need for the EU to respond as quickly as possible to the interim administration, and therefore do not object to the action that he has taken.

10.13  We now clear the document.

28   See for full details. Back

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Prepared 15 February 2011