The European Union has offered major financial support to crisis-hit Tunisia, to boost its economy and reduce the flow of irregular migrants across the Mediterranean Sea.
The North African country, highly indebted and in talks for an IMF bailout loan, is a gateway for migrants and asylum-seekers attempting the dangerous voyages to Europe.
The EU is ready to offer Tunisia a $968 million (900 million euro package) plus $161 million (150 million euros) in immediate support, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said on a joint visit with the Italian and Dutch prime ministers on Sunday.
Aside from trade and investment, it would help Tunisia with border management and combat human trafficking, with support worth 100 million euros ($107.5 million) this year, she said.
"We both have a vast interest in breaking the cynical business model of smugglers and traffickers," said von der Leyen. "It is horrible to see how they deliberately risk human lives for profit."
She said other EU projects would help Tunisia export clean renewable energy to the bloc, and deliver high-speed broadband, all with the aim of creating "jobs and boost growth here in Tunisia".
Von der Leyen, after talks with President Kais Saied, said she hoped an EU-Tunisia agreement could be signed at the next European summit later this month.
'Long and difficult road'
She stressed that the EU is Tunisia's top trade and investment partner and had "supported Tunisia's path to democracy" since it became the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, "a long and difficult road".
Von der Leyen visited Tunisia with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte, for talks with Saied, who has assumed near total governing powers over the country since 2021.
EU governments, under pressure to reduce migrant arrivals, last week agreed on steps to fast-track migrant returns to their countries of origin or transit countries deemed "safe", including Tunisia.
Italy's far-right premier, Meloni, was on her second Tunisia visit within a week, after meeting Saied on Tuesday.
Not Europe's 'border guard'
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights denounced the visit by the three European leaders as an attempt to "blackmail" Tunisia with an offer of financial support in return for stepped-up border vigilance.
Saied on Saturday said he rejected turning Tunisia into Europe's "border guard", speaking in Sfax, a coastal city in a region where many migrants leave.
However, on the migration issue, Saied had vowed "urgent measures" to tackle arrivals in Tunisia.
Tunisian rights groups accused him of hate speech after he charged in February that "hordes" of sub-Saharan African migrants were responsible for rising crime and posed a "demographic" threat. Attacks on migrants rose sharply after his speech, and thousands fled the country.
Tunisia lies less than 150 kilometres from the Italian island of Lampedusa and has long been a stepping stone for migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries, seeking a better life in Europe.