Tunisian minister ridicules EU aid effort

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A European Union pledge to help Tunisia's transition with 258 million euros is "ridiculous" and shows that Brussels is not up to the task of dealing with the crisis in North Africa, a Tunisian minister said yesterday (17 February).

"The figures put forward by the European Union are ridiculous and show that it has not understood the scale of the historical events in the southern Mediterranean," Industry Minister Mohamed Afif Chelbi told a conference in Rome.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said on a visit to Tunisia this week that the EU would disburse 258 million euros ($350 million) in aid to the country by 2013 and immediately unblock 17 million euros.

'Millions or billions?'

"When Ashton said 17 million, our minister thought he had misunderstood and asked: 'Millions or billions?' Once again, the European Union has not been up to the task of dealing with the region."

Chelbi was in Rome to reassure Italian businessmen that their investments in Tunisia were safe after the wave of protests which brought down President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last month.

He said his country's economy had continued to function despite the protests, with exports in January totalling around 800 million euros, broadly steady from January 2010.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who is worried about the tide of illegal immigrants who have been landing on Italy's southern shores in recent weeks, also said the EU should do more to help Tunisia.

Ashton said in an article published in the Financial Times on Tuesday that she was seeking at least 2.5 billion euros of extra funding to help support reforms in Tunisia, Egypt and other North African countries. She said she was in discussions with the European Investment Bank, the EU's financing arm, to mobilise one billion euros for Tunisia this year.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Weeks of protests forced Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, authoritarian leader of Tunisia for 23 years, to flee to Saudi Arabia last month. Since then there has been a wave of strikes and violent clashes, while many policemen have abandoned their posts.

Tunisia's 'Jasmine Revolution' unleashed a political earthquake across the region. Following 18 days of massive protests, Egypt became on 11 February the next Northern African country to oust its authoritarian ruler.

One of the consequences of the Tunisia revolution is a wave of illegal immigrants fleeing Tunisia, which usually try to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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