Written by Patricia Lopes
The partnership between the European Union and the Kingdom of Morocco is a historical one. Underpinned by numerous political and economic agreements, this relationship has proven to be very beneficial for both parties. However, it has never been an easy one.
Relations between the EU and Morocco intensified after the launch of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership – also known as the Barcelona Process – through which the Member States and the Mediterranean partners aimed at establishing a region characterized by security, peace, and shared prosperity, throughout the whole of the Mediterranean basin (Catalano & Graziano, 2016). Out of the 12 non-European states that were part of this partnership, Morocco was by far the greatest beneficiary. In addition to this, with the implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy, Morocco managed to improve its situation even further, and keep its place as the most advanced EU partner in the Southern Neighbourhood. Not only the EU is essential for Moroccan interests, but so are Member States on their own. France and Spain are, alongside the Union as a whole, Morocco’s main economic partners. Nevertheless, the EU also benefits from this partnership as Morocco has become fundamental in essential areas for the Union, such as counter-terrorism cooperation, migration control while also representing the main entrance into the Northern African arena.
Despite the mutual benefits, the relationship between the two has always been bumpy, with numerous points of potential conflict. Morocco has never been completely happy with the terms set by the EU in the numerous trading agreements. As a non-member of the Union, restrictions have been imposed on Morocco’s exports to the EU and, even though the northern African country was in no position to reject the conditions established by Brussels, it has not done so willingly (Messari, 2003). In the past years, Morocco has started to use its increasing leverage on security and migration to demand better deals and greater economic cooperation, amongst several other things, whilst adopting a defiant tone towards anything perceived as a possible political interference. A clear example of this conflictual relation can be noted in the migrant crisis that took place last May, when nearly 6,000 people crossed into Spain through the unattended Moroccan border due to a dispute between the two countries (Kassam, 2021).
The reason behind these quarrels seems difficult to grasp. Why, despite the clear benefits, are both parties not able to establish and maintain a harmonious relationship? There are several reasons that can aid the understanding of this phenomenon.
Firstly, the unbalanced nature of the partnership itself. As mentioned, the EU is Morocco’s main economic partner, and until recently one of its closest political allies; indeed, for an African country, Morocco is closer to Western partners than to its neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the rest of Africa. Obviously, however, this is not the same for the EU. Despite its interest in the Southern Neighbourhood, the plans developed for the region have always been of limited ambition (Teevan, 2019). As this situation translates into Morocco having no economic leverage, it has made the country willing to pursue other ways to try and bend the EU to its will.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the issue of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, also known as the Western Sahara. Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. However, its administration was ceded to Morocco and Mauritania under the 1975 Madrid Agreements. Later, Mauritania withdrew its claim over the territory and its administrative control became fully Morocco’s. Nonetheless, this was done disregarding international law, and thus, the UN declared null the agreement under article 73 of the Charter of the UN which states that;
“Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories.”
The absence of a formal decolonization process makes Western Sahara a non-self-governing territory de facto administered by Morocco. The kingdom’s interest in the territory of Western Sahara lies not only in the abundance of natural resources in the area, but also in it constituting a key element for the territorial integrity of the country. During Morocco’s decolonization process from Spain and France and the posterior political struggle, the campaign to reintegrate the formerly Spanish Sahara in 1976 served to give a renewed legitimacy and strength to the Moroccan monarchy and thus, it served as a much-needed stabilizing agent. Political and military opposition to Morocco’s claim on the Western Sahara on the part of the Polisario Front – politico-military organization striving for the independence of Western Sahara and recognised as representative of the people over the region – backed by Algeria and initially Libya, served only to strengthen Moroccan resolve to take full legal and political control of the territory. The political unity and stability that the Sahara issue brought to the domestic Moroccan political arena explains the determination with which Morocco has pursued its claim on the territory (Messari, 2003).
What role does the EU play when it comes to the Western Sahara issue? On one hand, the Union is bound by international law not to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty claim over Western Sahara as the decolonization process has not been carried out completely. However, the EU has not fully supported international law in this case, as the partnership with Morocco remains essential and, therefore, there has been a close alliance between Brussels and Rabat allowing the territory’s inclusion in the bilateral agreements. Nonetheless, it can’t be forgotten that the European Union is not a sole entity and that, within it, there are a lot of players and interests that in some cases might compete with each other, which is exactly what has happened on several occasions respecting the EU-Morocco affairs.
If relations were already complicated, they will be even more so, as the General Court of the European Union recently annulled the agreement between the European Union and Morocco amending the tariff preferences granted by the EU to products of Moroccan origin and, second, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (General Court of the European Union, 2021). These agreements had already been annulled by the European Court of Justice in 2015 but were put back into place after the European Parliament adopted an amended version of the accord. Although the Parliament established that a consultation process had been carried out and that “all reasonable and feasible steps had been taken to inquire about the consent of the population concerned” (European Parliament, 2019), the Polisario Front immediately contested the decision. Now, the ECJ has ruled that, indeed, “the steps taken by the EU authorities before the conclusion of the agreements at issue cannot be regarded as having secured the consent of the people of Western Sahara” (General Court of the European Union, 2021).
The European Union has subordinated its Western Sahara policy and Saharawi self-determination to its desire to develop and maintain close bilateral relations with Morocco. However, it appears that now the Union will be forced to take a stand as, by taking this decision, the ECJ has strengthened the Polisario Front’s international status by somehow recognizing them. Luckily, it has not evolved into a political crisis between the EU and Morocco as in previous occasions. This can be mainly because the Court allowed for its decision not to have immediate effect, giving the European Council and Commission time to negotiate new agreements with Morocco and decide on a position towards the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. Furthermore, It cannot be omitted that the state of affairs has been smoothed over by the fact that the European Council now has an alibi or excuse to justify its decisions towards Western Sahara, with no choice but to respect the Court’s decisions.
How this situation will unfold remains to be seen. As past actions have shown, Morocco is a proud country, and very aware of its territorial integrity. At the moment it appears that the reaction to the withdrawal of trade agreements has not been extremely negative; however, if an agreement that benefits the country is not reached before the deadline, the situation is likely to change. At the same time, the EU finds itself at a crossroads between the defence of its fundamental objectives under the rule of international law, and the threat of Morocco not agreeing with the decisions, opting to use its leverage and techniques of ‘weaponised migration’ as has been seen on other occasions.
The relationship between the Union and Morocco will undoubtedly continue to be complicated, and the outcome will depend on the positions that the countries take in the upcoming months.
Catalano, S. L., & Graziano, P. R. (2016). Europeanization as a Democratization Tool? The Case of Morocco. Mediterranean Politics, 364–386.
European Parliament. (2019, January). EU-Morocco Agreement on the amendment of Protocols 1 and 4 to the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement (Resolution). Obtained from: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2019-0016_EN.html
General Court of the European Union. (2021, September 29). Press Release No 166/21. The General Court annuls the Council decisions concerning, first, the agreement between the European Union and Morocco amending the tariff preferences granted by the European Union to products of Moroccan origin and, second, the Sustainable Fisheries Part. Obtained from: https://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2021-09/cp210166en.pdf
Kassam, A. (2021, May 18). More than 6,000 migrants reach Spain’s North African enclave Ceuta. The Guardian.
Messari, M. W. (2003). Analyzing Moroccan Foreign Policy and Relations with Europe. The Review of International Affairs, 152-172.
Teevan, C. (2019). EU-Morocco : a win-win partnership? Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis (MIPA).
United Nations. (1945, June 26). Chapter XI: Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories. United Nations Charter.