The article Disruptions in the ENP Cycle: EU Gender Policies in Tunisia from a ‘Decentring Perspective by Clara della Valle and Serena Giusti, published by the European Foreign Affairs Review (Vol.26, Issue 3/2021, pp.397-414), investigates how policy actions generated by the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) are enacted in partner countries. In particular, it considers the implementation of EU gender policies in Tunisia through the ‘policy cycle model’ lens, accounting for any disruptions that may occur in the policy chain between EU headquarters and local communities in Tunisia. The article adopts a ‘decentring perspective’, granting salience to local actors’ needs, expectations and viewpoints, and thereby questioning the euro-centric attitude from an empirical point of view.

The consideration of gender policies, a politically sensitive issue, consents to capture how the Tunisian ruling leadership and the EU have interacted and how the EU Delegation (EUD) in the country has involved local stakeholders in the programmes targeted to gender equality. The case study of Tunisia is particularly interesting because of the process of democratic transition that the country has undertaken since 2011 when Tunisian women played a significant role. This process has certainly impacted on the EU-Tunisia relationships.

Indeed, until 2011, the implementation of EU gender policies in Tunisia had given priority to the principle of stability around which the ENP was shaped. The promotion of democracy itself was pursued to the extent that actions would not undermine the stability of the region with possible reverberations on the EU’s security. The end of the authoritarian regime favoured a sense of empowerment on the side of Tunisian women. Even if their activism has a long tradition, female associations have been indeed able to freely operate only after 2011 when, alongside some very well established organizations, there was a mushrooming of new associations. They obtained important results in terms of political participation, recognition of their rights within the 2014 Constitution, and fight against gender-based violence. In this regard, the Loi intégrale sur la lutte contre la violence faite aux femmes, approved in 2017, adopted a broad definition of violence (including forms of physical, psychological, political and economic violence), and provided new mechanisms to assist victims and to eliminate impunity for perpetrators of violence.

In the post-2011 period, the EU was ready to support Tunisian women incrementing its financial commitment towards specific gender programmes. However, such a commitment was accompanied by obstructions that local associations taking part in EU-funded projects have lamented as an impediment to reaching the goals agreed with the Union.

According to the EUD in Tunisia, especially since 2013, funding for projects for improving women’s conditions has been substantial, though many were channelled towards the government rather than local civil society organizations (CSOs). As emerged from the 2017 Report of the EUD, following the EU-Tunisian bilateral agreement signed on 30 April 2015 the majority of EU funding in 2016 (EUR 7 million) was directed to the programme Promotion de l’égalité femmes-hommes en Tunisie, under the direction of the Tunisian Ministry of Women, the Family, and Childhood. The remaining funding (EUR 2,130 million) was distributed through grants among six projects, the majority of which implemented by international organizations and NGOs in partnership with local CSOs.

The interviews conducted during this study to local women’s associations have underlined different obstacles as per their involvement in EU-funded projects. Besides the liberal feminist tenets of EU gender policies, Tunisian female associations have criticized the many difficulties encountered when applying for EU-funded projects, because of the complexity of the calls for proposals’ guidelines. Moreover, they have underlined some difficulties in projects’ implementation. For example, the absence of continuity in EU funding (usually EU projects last from three to five years, but they cannot get more funding after that period) has negative consequences in terms of projects’ sustainability. In particular, they undermine long-term change, especially in those fields where change has to deal with patriarchal practices well rooted in the society.

On the side of the EU, it has been stressed that the EUD in Tunisia has to face a lack of internal resources, mostly in terms of staff. Moreover, the EU functionaries in Tunis are well aware of the difficulties local associations struggle with, but stress that their action is inhibited by procedures designed in Brussels. At the EU headquarters, interviewees have instead underlined problems related to the non-prioritization of the gender issue, the complexity of the EU machinery and the weak monitoring and assessment mechanisms.

The article contributes to a critical understanding of EU gender policies promoted in the framework of policies destined to neighbouring countries with no possibility of joining the EU. Although the EU has been very reactive to the 2011 transformations in the Mediterranean countries, and especially in Tunisia, it has not adequately considered inputs coming from the variegated panorama of women’s associations nor redesigned the manner in which programmes are implemented. This has caused several ‘disruptions’ in the ENP cycle, undermining the outputs desired by stakeholders on the ground and questioning the so-called EU ‘local turn’.