TUNIS (Reuters) - The European Union awaits “strong and clear” action from Tunisia to help stem the flow of migrants fleeing the country, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said, with cooperation key for deeper relations.
Tunisian migrants have flowed out of the north African country since the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January loosened previously strict frontier controls and opened the way into Europe for thousands seeking employment.
The southern Italian island of Lampedusa has borne the brunt of a crisis which has seen some 25,000 people arrive on its shores in overloaded fishing boats since the start of the year.
“Migration should be seen as a common challenge, a shared responsibility,” Barroso told reporters after meeting Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi. “We await strong and clear action from Tunisia, for it to accept the readmission of its migrants who find themselves in an irregular situation in Europe, as well as in the fight against illegal migration.”
Barroso said the bloc was looking to make available 140 million euros in extra funds to Tunisia for 2011-2013 on top of the existing budget of 257 million euros ($371.8 million).
“Migration is not the solution to economic challenges in this country. The long-term solution is economic and social development,” Barroso added. “Tunisia’s engagement is crucial for our cooperation. We are ready to help with supplementary means but we also need the engagement of Tunisian authorities.”
Italy, which signed an agreement with Tunisia to try to halt the flow, has quarreled with EU governments over how to handle thousands of migrants fleeing violence in north Africa. The Commission has urged the bloc to do more for the refugees.
“In Europe it may be time to have a common immigration policy, the Commission has asked for a common policy for a long time,” Barroso said at a second press conference, adding he had asked Tunisia to respect earlier agreements on migrants in irregular situations.
“It is essential that we can work together so this can be resolved, otherwise it will generate problems. What we don’t want are problems between Tunisia and Europe. We want conditions to develop deeper relations.”
Barroso also met Tunisian interim President Fouad Mebazza to talk about the country’s roadmap for transition since January’s popular revolt which ousted Ben Ali. He paid tribute to the “courageous” people of Tunisia.
“Tunisia was the first country to undertake this transition process and I would like it to be the first example of a new generation of our partnership,” he said.
He said the 27-nation EU was ready to negotiate more generous access for Tunisian trade to European markets once Tunisia elects a government.
“I ask (investors) not to leave this country but to look at it with more interest than ever before because I hope this transition will happen well and confident it will be democratic.”
Editing by Richard Lough