Italy, Netherlands and EU leaders to visit Tunisia hoping for IMF deal

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks during a press conference in Tunis

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) -The prime ministers of Italy and the Netherlands will travel at the weekend to Tunisia along with the European Commission president, looking to make progress in unblocking loans from the International Monetary Fund for the north African state.

Talks between Tunisia and the IMF for a $1.9 billion loan have been stalled for months, with Tunisian President Kais Saied rejecting key reform commitments to obtain the money and failing to publicly embrace a deal.

Europe is especially concerned that, without the funds, Tunisia faces a full-blown financial crisis that could push a fresh wave of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in Europe.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Thursday she hoped the trip on Sunday could facilitate talks between Tunis and the IMF, adding she was confident a deal could be reached if both parties were open to negotiation.

"The destabilisation of Tunisia would have serious repercussions on the stability of the whole of North Africa ... and those repercussions would also reach us," Meloni said after a meeting in Rome with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will join Meloni and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Tunis. Public discontent in the Netherlands over asylum seekers is one of Rutte's main domestic political problems.

The joint trip follows a meeting between Meloni and President Saied in Tunisia earlier this week.

Saied seized most powers in 2021, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree. In February, he told security forces to expel all illegal immigrants, denouncing what he said was a conspiracy to change Tunisia's demographics by making it more African and less Arab.

The resulting crackdown helped fuel a surge in migrant departures towards Italy. About 26,555 of the 51,215 boat migrants who have reached Italy so far this year set sail from Tunisia, the latest United Nations data shows, against 3,658 in the same period of 2022.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante; additional reporting by Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Editing by Hugh Lawson)