When Arab leaders get together and talk geopolitics, one country stands out: Morocco. And this is largely because it has special relations with the market all MENA countries crave for—the European Union (EU). Morocco, since 2007, has had a unique relationship with the EU, one which EU buffs call “Ukraine status.” Indeed, no other country comes as close to having the status of an EU member state without being one as Ukraine. For Morocco, this translates into swathes of free trade on many goods, cooperation on terrorism, and access to the EU’s huge market with its agricultural produce.
On September 29, a decision taken by the EU’s highest court may throw EU-Morocco relations into a disarray. The European Union court, at the end of September annulled a ruling previously signed off by MEPs in Brussels to accept the Western Sahara as a territory which should be included in the latest agriculture and fisheries trade agreement with the EU. The case, unsurprisingly, was presented to the EU court by the Algerian-backed “Polisario” group, which fights for the independence of the zone and rejects Morocco’s sovereignty. Rabat is now considering its next move, which some have speculated might result in a “divorce” from the EU.
The case, unsurprisingly, was presented to the EU court by the Algerian-backed “Polisario” group
This is a huge blow to Morocco, which until just recently, was basking in the albeit ephemeral jubilation of ushering in a new era of relations with Israel, on the basis that Tel Aviv accepted Morocco’s full sovereignty over the disputed region. The move comes with a hefty price tag and was largely precipitated by President Trump signing a statement in his last days in office, declaring that America accepts Morocco’s claims as the rightful owner of the territory.
Morocco has many friends within the EU, yet the decision by the court to reject products from the Western Sahara puts the very relationship with Brussels in question. It will almost certainly anger the Palace in Rabat, which in recent years has struggled to see the obvious advantages to the so-called “special relationship,” insisting that Morocco puts more into it than it takes out.
But should the Palace be surprised with this decision? Regular readers of Inside Arabia may remember the author warning that Morocco’s deteriorating relations with the EU – and in particular with Germany – would come at a cost. In recent months, Rabat’s dealings with Germany plummeted to an all-time low for three main reasons: First, Germany’s open disregard for the Trump decision over Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara; second, Germany’s sympathy for an independence in the region which favors the Saharawi people; and third, Berlin’s protection and rescue of Mohamed Hajib, a controversial Islamic figure.
Morocco has been shooting from the hip over its control of the subject of Western Sahara. Within Morocco itself, Rabat has successfully stifled any debate whatsoever as there is practically no one – not even the recalcitrant few journalists who have been locked up for their views – who would dare explore the subject. But the Moroccan authorities believe erroneously that they can also extend this gagging order policy beyond its borders.
Furthermore, Morocco loses respect from the international community when it throws what can only be described as minor fits of overreaction with anything related to the polemical subject. Rabat also has created a new confrontation with Spain, its largest trading partner, simply because Madrid allowed for the Polisario leader to have surgery there. This massive over-kill, which climaxed in thousands of illegal immigrants being allowed to enter Spain from Morocco’s enclave of Ceuta, backfired big time. It was designed to send a message both to Madrid and the EU that Morocco can play the immigration card. In reality, nearly all of the immigrants were sent back to Morocco.
With no real lobbying program and practically no PR initiative to speak of in Washington, London, Paris, and Brussels, Moroccan relations with the EU are waning.
Similarly, with no real lobbying program and practically no PR initiative to speak of in Washington, London, Paris, and Brussels, Moroccan relations with the EU are waning. But what was behind the extraordinary and unprecedented decision for the court to annul an EU trade deal that was already set in stone?
Germany is hugely powerful and influential within the EU. It’s the proverbial 600-pound gorilla who choses where to sit in a crowded room and it is here where we should look. It’s not just that Germany holds a number of key positions within the EU hierarchy. It’s more about how much clout Berlin has behind the scenes when it needs to settle a score. It dominates the EU on nearly all levels. Practically every European Parliament delegation is heavily influenced, or, in the case of the prestigious Foreign Affairs committee itself, run by a German national. Even without this, Germany usually gets its way, as a number of faithful allies within the 27-nation bloc habitually support its ideas and objectives. And it is Germany that wants to teach Morocco a lesson now following its diplomatic row with Rabat.
And so it is almost no surprise that this shocking U-turn by the EU comes via its Luxembourg court, which dropped a few journalists’ jaws in Brussels where the European institutions are based.
These decisions hardly ever happen. What is unique about the case is that the EU court even went as far as to determine that the Polisario, which brought the case itself to the EU court, had the right to do so, despite what some might argue could be a lack of legitimacy – perhaps in a bid to pre-empt any appeal from Rabat. Does the Polisario have special relations or is it capable of shadowy stunts within the EU? No, but it has a good friend in Berlin who can.
And so murky corruption in smoke filled rooms within the EU is what this setback for Morocco is really all about.
And so murky corruption in smoke filled rooms within the EU is what this setback for Morocco is really all about. It reveals how decisions can be changed to suit those who are powerful enough to call the shots – even on relatively minor matters. And now that the powerful EU court has signaled the way for what the role of the EU should be over Morocco and its Western Sahara conundrum, weak and ineffective MEPs will grasp this theme.
Before the Trump decision, the EU turned a blind eye to a gargantuan bundle of human rights issues in the North African country. That, in itself, was a sort of corruption to keep Morocco close to its side, while Rabat played the role of this perfect neighbor, tugging its forelock and paying homage to the fake hegemony, which is required for the aid checks to keep being sent to Morocco from the EU’s coffers.
But as the author warned previously, these subjects now will come under the spotlight as the EU’s decision to keep the Western Sahara separate from Morocco proper is not insignificant.
Morocco’s Corruption and Misjudgments
Europe can easily justify its punishment of Morocco by simply looking at the rampant corruption in its judiciary system. Corruption in Morocco is an easy subject to select since graft is literally taking over the country as a new entity or way of life for millions of Moroccans. And so where would MEP delegations start to stick their noses? Obviously the pay-as-you-go infamous judiciary system itself, which is practically a private limited company with the “baksheesh” money that processes it all, so that the one with more money can deviate legal cases to suit their needs.
Corruption in Morocco is an easy subject to select since graft is literally taking over the country.
Rabat’s poor judgement of picking fights which it can’t possibly win because it has a delusional view of its own importance, and constantly making the headlines in Europe for behaving like a child that keeps losing its toy, means that it badly needs to change its image and score some points for some common sense.
After all, how can it be taken seriously by the EU, the UN, Washington, Paris, and Berlin if it keeps throwing a hissy fit every time someone mentions the words “Western Sahara”?
Given that the human rights record of Morocco on its own soil is so unholy, as is the case of the judiciary system and its cash-hungry judges and court officials, many in capitals around the world will conclude that Rabat will never be taken earnestly when it comes to the basic human rights of those living in Western Sahara. If Rabat were ever able to do something about corruption in its own courts, Washington and the EU would no doubt take its position about the disputed territory more seriously.
But that’s unlikely to happen. Moroccans have grown accustomed to their country’s judiciary being hijacked by those who use it to settle scores. And so in this context, Rabat should understand only too well the shady world of EU politics and how money talks and influences court cases.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.