23 Oct 2019

Winds of change for EU-Morocco relations


After a period in the doldrums, it has been a good year so far for EU-Morocco relations. In February, the European Parliament approved amendments to the EU-Morocco association and fisheries agreements, addressing the dispute about the inclusion of Western Sahara in the scope of those accords.

This helped pave the way for a joint declaration at the successful Association Council in June 2019, which sets out a number of ambitious goals on security, migration management, climate, trade and development, among others. “We have now turned the page” were the words of the EU’s outgoing High Representative Federica Mogherini at the time.

Shared interests

The change in tone and substance reflects a strategic reappraisal by both sides of their core interests. With Tunisia and Algeria in political transition, Libya mired in internal conflict, and persistent insurgencies in the Sahel, Morocco is a rare example of political stability for the EU – albeit not without challenges. Significantly, it has proved to be a reliable and effective partner in controlling terrorism and migration in the EU’s turbulent southern neighbourhood. Since 2018, some 135,000 irregular migrants were prevented from reaching Europe via maritime routes off the Moroccan coast, 38,000 have been rescued at sea and over 300 people-smuggling networks disbanded.

With conflict and instability dogging the North African region, and by extension Europe itself, the EU has a strong interest in supporting a peaceful solution to the Western Sahara dispute, which involves the former Spanish colony, mostly ruled by Morocco, with an enclave controlled by the Polisario Front, a movement devoted to independence for the territory. The joint declaration welcomed the “serious and credible” efforts led by Morocco to that end, under the auspices of the UN. That said, it remains to be seen how the Sahrawi population sees these talks, which will need to be sensitive to their aspirations.

The EU has considerable commercial interests in Morocco, with large stocks of European investment, notably in the automobile industry. In the bigger picture, since rejoining the African Union, Rabat is one the EU’s most important partners in taking forward its Africa strategy, which has been identified as a major priority by the current Finnish EU Presidency.

For Morocco, the EU is by far its biggest economic partner, accounting for well over half of its trade and investment. It also has significant ties to Europe through the sizeable Moroccan-origin communities in Spain, France and elsewhere, which generate major remittances and tourism. There are common interests in controlling illegal migration and terrorism, both of which can threaten Morocco’s own stability, and in fighting climate change. The country also needs European understanding and support in dealing with the Western Sahara.

Human rights and democracy remain bones of contention, however, and there have been a number of protest movements in recent years, many of them related to underlying income inequalities and corruption, although relative to many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco has shown progress in fostering political inclusion, notably of mainstream Islamist parties in government, and accountability, an area where King Mohammed VI has shown strong leadership. However, the proof of the pudding will be in effective implementation: reports on the first phase of the country’s 2016-25 anti-corruption strategy this year show that a number of projects (30 out of 89) are behind schedule. Sustained political will is therefore needed to get the strategy back on track.

What next?

The stage could now be set for a new phase in EU-Moroccan relations. It is likely that the new EU leadership, once confirmed, will quickly understand the potential for greater cooperation.

Indeed, Federica Mogherini’s designated successor as High Representative, Josep Borrell, is a frequent visitor to Morocco and as Spanish Foreign Minister he has been vocal in calling for better relations and greater EU support for the country. One of his first tasks will be to inject impetus into the EU’s southern neighbourhood policy, of which Morocco is a key participant.

Three areas stand out for urgent attention:

A return to talks on a mobility partnership, where the key quid pro quo will as ever involve the EU facilitating legal migration for businesspeople, students and young workers, for example, in return for Morocco further intensifying cooperation on the control of irregular migration, including on return and readmission.

In the past, this has proved difficult, not least because of Morocco’s reluctance, in common with the rest of the southern neighbourhood countries, to readmit third country nationals. If it is to work this time, the EU will doubtless have to provide greater incentives than those already available, such as financial support for development and follow-through on trade preferences.

Both sides’ strong commitment to the Paris Agreement means that cooperation on climate change is an area where there could be low hanging fruit: Morocco is already a leader in its region in renewable energy (it is home to the world’s largest concentrated solar energy farm). Greater EU investment, using grant aid resources in combination with loans from its development banks, should be a top priority.

The EU and Morocco have committed to relaunch negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), where talks have been stalled since 2014. That political commitment will require a new offer from the EU, if meaningful talks are to get underway again. Some business and civil society groups have yet to be convinced and will need careful nurturing.  The Polisario Front has mounted a legal challenge in the European Court of Justice to the EU’s decision on extending the agreements to include the Western Sahara in their scope. That could take time to resolve, although it does not necessarily prevent negotiations from being revived.

But there is also wide recognition that a DCFTA would provide a shot in the arm to EU foreign investment and create jobs – a major challenge for Rabat as it struggles to deal with its ‘youth bulge’.  More generally, it should also help bolster the rule of law in the country, and as such contribute to the anti-corruption campaign.

In all, while the road ahead – as ever in this region – is far from smooth, the decisions taken in June could well provide the incoming High Representative with some opportunities to find positives in the EU’s relations with its troubled southern neighbourhood. In view of this and his past involvement with the country, one would expect Mr Borrell to give Morocco his close attention.

James Moran is Associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS and former EU Ambassador to Egypt & Jordan.