Morocco’s anguish toward Spain for allowing the Polisario leader, Brahim Ghali, to seek medical treatment there is growing. Rabat has delivered a series of messages to Madrid via its foreign minister that it is confused at best about their so-called special relationship when Madrid surreptitiously pulls off a stunt like this. And that is regardless of the fact that the Spanish courts are able to process a number of cases against Ghali now that he is on their soil.
Indeed, Morocco has decided to abandon conventional diplomacy and any erudite media strategy and has opted instead for a less subtle form of dealing with Madrid. And this has started with the deliberate release of thousands of African immigrants camped on the Moroccan side of the Ceuta enclave border, causing international headlines in mid-May.
Ceuta is a tiny Spanish enclave perched on a peninsular on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco and represents a gateway into the European Union (EU) for many who hope to scale its high metal fences or swim to it along the coast. This event, which led to about 8,000 migrants making it to the EU enclave, was a very clear message to Spain that it needs to do something quickly about Ghali or risk a crisis with Morocco.
But it was also an even clearer message to the EU which relies on Morocco to act as a choke on all immigration from the African subcontinent. The move is sure to send a shockwave to Brussels who will take note that if this situation continues, then Morocco could become a gateway for thousands – possibly millions – of desperate Africans seeking to migrate to Europe. A new point of departure which could present real political problems for EU countries as most will head for France or Germany.
For at least a decade, relations between Morocco and the EU have declined largely due to the “special status” which the EU granted Morocco in 2008.
Rabat feels betrayed both by Spain and the EU. For at least a decade, relations between Morocco and the EU have declined largely due to the “special status” which the EU granted Morocco in 2008—being not really special at all. Morocco has, more or less, a free trade agreement with the EU on almost all goods, but this doesn’t add up to much when, say, a lot of its agricultural exports can’t reach EU standards on pesticides and therefore can’t enter the market.
More poignantly, Rabat was hoping for a much better deal on immigration which would allow more Moroccans access to the EU, thus boosting euro remittances back to the central bank of Morocco. Such a deal, written or unwritten, has not materialized leaving resentment and bitterness with the palace in Rabat and the business elite which are growing tired of this special relationship which seems to only exist on paper.
But it is Western Sahara which is the real sticking point. Perhaps Morocco’s palace thought that signing the special statute in 2008, might have steered the EU closer towards Rabat’s views about the controversial territory. Western Sahara has made the news a lot of late due to Trump making the US officially recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over it shortly before he left office. The decision, which was conditioned on a “normalization” deal with Israel, has also put a guilt edge on the agreement.
Yet this latest development has only intensified problems between the EU and Morocco, as the former could previously carry-on good relations with Rabat while looking the other way on Western Sahara. In 2017, the EU’s foreign policy chief made it clear that any trade deals signed between Morocco and the EU would not include goods or produce coming from Western Sahara, which angered Rabat when it was upheld by EU courts twice.
The EU is confused and incoherent about Morocco. It would prefer the Western Sahara issue to remain a UN conundrum and that Morocco would not rock the boat.
In reality, the EU is confused and incoherent about Morocco. It would prefer the Western Sahara issue to remain a UN conundrum and that Morocco would not rock the boat so as to shine a spotlight on the European Union’s lack of unity and clarity about issues on the foreign policy circuit which it can neither control, nor understand.
The EU court decisions, while salt in the wound, were until now not actually enforced as the EU elite turned a blind eye to the small print for the sake of keeping good relations with Rabat. Such good relations Europe needs not only for phosphate imports, which it relies on for fertilizer, but also as the cap to be kept firmly on with regards to African migrants.
But the more recent bellicose attitude which is prevailing from both Germany – who many would argue play a dominant role in Brussels – and more recently Spain, is putting new strains on the relationship. This might draw more attention to a subject which is, until now, considered an exclusive and academic talking point: divorce with the European Union altogether.
The subject is not new. In the last year, this word is also popping up in the Moroccan press, with some seasoned media tsars of the Rabat elite even calling for a “divorce” simply as a way of improving relations, after the EU – and its member states – realize what a valuable role Rabat plays in keeping huge swathes of African immigrants out of Europe.
And so, this is the context in which this latest coup de theatre pulled off by Rabat should be seen. Rabat feels under-appreciated. And like any partner in a marriage who feels undervalued, divorce is always an option simply for one partner to show the other that a reboot is needed.
The reaction to Spain, Germany, and the EU in general not following through on the Trump move to anoint Morocco with its new status, is that Morocco is embarking on a massive, drawn out tantrum. This may well end up in the divorce courts if Brussels doesn’t see that its own dithering and incoherence on Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara, can no longer continue.