Transcending Notions of ‘Us and Them’: Towards a Recalibration of EU-Morocco Relations

Written by | Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

In recent years, the European Union’s relationship with several neighboring countries, particularly in the North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) region, seems to have gradually shifted from harmony to tension. The question that naturally comes to mind is if the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) might have served to make security political bonds stronger? As a book edited by Pernille Rieker, a senior researcher in the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), concludes, the “ENP hasn’t lived up to expectations”. Back in 2000s, when many post-Communist states in Eastern and Central Europe became EU members, the bloc also initiated a process aimed at creating a ‘ring of friends’ through building closer ties with several post-Soviet republics as well as countries in the South – in the MENA region. “However, the opposite has happened’, Rieker explains.
One such case is Morocco. The EU’s relations with Rabat overall seem to have taken a downturn during the past year. A diplomatic dispute in May between Rabat and Madrid over the latter’s decision to host, under a fake name, a leader of the Western Saharan independence movement soured what had been improving relations across the Mediterranean Sea. A subsequent massive influx of migrants from Morocco into Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves situated on Morocco’s northern coast, further fueled bilateral tensions and exposed divergent views on the Western Sahara issue. At around the same time, a fresh disagreement erupted between Germany and Morocco over the disputed territory, with Rabat recalling its ambassador in Berlin. Rabat has questioned why the EU and its member states refuse to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, even though the US has done so.
As its relations with Europe soured somewhat in 2021, Morocco has become increasingly receptive to the geopolitical influence of external powers such as China and Russia or the Gulf states. The accelerating tension with Rabat is putting European countries in a difficult situation, as they need to balance the need to uphold the principle of self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Charter, with the preservation of their relations with Morocco, one of their most important partners in North Africa. The widening diplomatic gulf between Europe and Morocco could lead to a gradual decoupling which has the potential to cut Rabat adrift and to benefit the external powers that are increasingly active in the region. But despite this somewhat gloomy picture, both sides seem to be looking for ways to repair the strained ties between both shores of the Mediterranean.
Brussels and Rabat clearly recognize that it is in the interest of both sides to prevent the situation from festering any further and find ways to rekindle the strategically important relations. On 24 December 2021, Morocco said it is ready to restore diplomatic cooperation with Germany, apparently thanks to a perceived shift in position toward the disputed Western Sahara. The Kingdom “appreciates the positive announcements and constructive positions recently made by the new federal government of Germany,” the ministry said. “These announcements make it possible to envisage a revival of bilateral cooperation and a return to normalcy of the diplomatic representations of the two countries.” The statement appeared to be referring to language posted on the German website that calls Morocco “a central partner of the European Union and Germany in North Africa” and states that the German position on Western Sahara has been unchanged for decades – Germany supports UN efforts to bring about “a fair, durable political solution that is acceptable for all sides.”
Earlier in December, foreign affairs ministers of Morocco and Italy, Nasser Bourita and Luigi Di Maio, commented favorably on the excellent state of relations between Morocco and Italy, agreeing to accelerate implementation of the Multidimensional Strategic Partnership between the two countries. They reaffirmed their strong interest in maintaining and strengthening the legal framework that links Morocco to the EU, which is essential to ensure the continued stability of their strategic partnership. Apart from seeking to reinforce relations with its traditional European partners, Morocco has sought new allies on the continent on which to rely in order to face the challenges that lie ahead. As the Moroccan foreign minister said in December, his country was seeking a bilateral “real partnership” with the four countries that make up the Visegrad Group. On the eve of the V4+Morocco Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Budapest, Nasser Bourita met, among other leaders, with his Polish counterpart Zbigniew Rau. Poland — much like the other V4 countries, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia — consider the Kingdom of Morocco to be one of their most important partners on the African continent, and one with which it wants to develop economic cooperation based on considerable and yet not fully tapped potential on both sides.
It is clear that also both Morocco and Spain would like to mend their strained relations. As Moroccan King Mohammed VI. said in August, his country is keen to strengthen ties with Spain after a rift between the two countries this spring, though he added the crisis had shaken mutual trust. “We are keen today to strengthen (ties) bearing in mind the need for a common understanding of the two nations’ interests,” he said in a speech but noted that Morocco would not accept “that its best interests be trampled on”. The analyst and international cooperation expert Nourdine Mouati agrees, arguing that also “Spain should make a gesture to regain that trust with Morocco” to further strengthen the bilateral ties. Overall, in 2022 and beyond, the relationship between the EU and Morocco needs to be reinvented so that it transcends notions of “us and them,” as Nasser Bourita argued in a 2020 interview. “The renewed European Neighborhood Policy must transcend these notions and offer a clear political perspective that takes up the challenges but also brings answers to the ambitions of each partner.”

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