Algeria and Morocco are both very important partners for the European Union when it comes to dealing with the Sahel region. Both North African countries share much in common in terms of language, religion, ethnicity and history but they also share common rivalries for power and influence within the African Union. The Western Sahara region is at heart of contemporary tensions between Morocco and Algeria and the differences are profound when analyzing the foreign policies of both countries.
While Moroccan foreign policy is aligned more closely with European interests, Algeria has traditionally been more reserved about European foreign policy. Morocco actively engages with the EU on the G5 Sahel – an institutional framework for coordination of regional cooperation in development policies and security matters in central Africa. Both sides also cooperate closely on counter-terrorism and migration. Morocco is also currently in the process of negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU.
Brussels has correctly observed Morocco’s rising influence on the African stage but underestimating Algeria’s influence would be a mistake. While the country’s civil war of the 1990s caused Algeria to recede somewhat from the limelight, it has emerged again as a regional actor in the 2000s and has become one of the African Union’s major financial contributors. Algeria has been overall committed to strengthening the AU institutions. While EU’s relations with Algeria have improved since 2016, with the less diversified trade relationship coupled with Algerian reservations about EU foreign policy, this relationship remains a slightly more distant one compared to the ties that Brussels maintains with Rabat.
From a European perspective, the Sahel is a major area of interest where both Moroccan and Algerian influence is of greatest importance. Rabat seems to have a strong influence in the region as Morocco’s economic ties with the Sahel are intensifying. Meanwhile, Algeria is not willing to be engaged in the Sahel on European terms, opting for bilateral relations with the countries of the region. Yet, Algeria still is the most important security player in the Sahel, maintaining strong ties with the individual countries.
The EU should certainly keep on working with Morocco in the region, especially given Europe’s weakness when it comes to its soft power tools in the Sahel. However, the EU will still need to pursue a more developed strategy, targeting economic and governance issues on top of supporting Moroccan initiatives. Moreover, Brussels should also try to deepen its understanding of Algerian interests in the region and be ready to engage with Algeria on its own terms when it comes to the Sahel’s security.
‘Les frères ennemis: Europe’s Balancing Act Between Morocco and Algeria’ – Commentary by Chloe Teevan – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.