BRUSSELS: EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem heads to Tunisia on Tuesday to begin talks towards a free trade deal with Europe, part of the bloc’s wider effort to support the crisis-hit nation.
On her trip Malmstroem will meet three of the four civil society groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize, her office said Friday.
“This is an important signal at this time for Tunisia: We are at your side to encourage the economic and political reforms you have taken on in these sensitive times,” Malmstroem, a former Swedish minister, told AFP.
“We are your friends, your allies,” she said, and despite recent jihadist attacks that killed dozens of Europeans, the European Union would “not turn its back” on Tunisia.
The 28-nation EU is Tunisia’s biggest trading partner, while the small north African country is 34th on the list for Europe. Last year, total trade amounted to about 20 billion euros ($22 billion).
The production of olive oil is Tunisia’s main export, a sector that generates about one million jobs in the country.
Malmstroem said the deal would weigh in Tunisia’s favor and take care to protect sensitive sectors.
“It’s a first step,” she said, without adding any details on how long the talks would last.
Since Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in 2011 triggered the Arab Spring, the EU has stepped up support to the North African nation, giving aid and political backing and initiating trade talks.
The Eu’s top officials visited Tunis earlier this year to back the fight against a growing Islamist militant threat after a deadly attack on a museum in the capital and the killing of nearly 40 tourists at a beach resort.