x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Morocco faces challenges to EU dream

The North African country needs to break trade barriers with neighbours and improve upon its human rights image for integration with Europe.

Donkeys laden with petrol cans cross the border between Morocco and Algeria in Beni Drar. The European Union and Morocco want the border open to speed economic integration in North Africa.
Donkeys laden with petrol cans cross the border between Morocco and Algeria in Beni Drar. The European Union and Morocco want the border open to speed economic integration in North Africa.

RABAT // This month, a splash resounded through Morocco halls of power - the sound of ?230 million (Dh1.2 billion) raining down from EU coffers. It is hardly the billions that Brussels has spent raising central and eastern European member states to EU standards of infrastructure and governance. But with around ?200 million each year, Morocco is getting more than other neighbours of the EU - a reflection of the country's rising value in European eyes. European leaders consider Morocco a foothold for diplomacy and investment in North Africa, citing an opening economy and improved human rights. But critics say EU largesse overlooks lingering human rights abuses, while European hopes for ushering Morocco into deeper partnership risk getting snagged on long-standing North African rivalries. In October, the EU approved advanced status for Morocco, a privileged political and economic access that the country has sought for years, the end goal of which is full integration into the European market. "We go faster with countries that want to go faster," said Bruno Dethomas, the head of the EU delegation in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. European leaders were encouraged by Moroccan efforts to engage with the EU, and by democratic reforms including a new family code that expanded women's rights and the establishment of a truth commission to look into past human rights abuses by the Moroccan state, Mr Dethomas said. "But it's still going to be a challenge for Morocco, because it will need to meet all the EU standards." For now, Morocco should focus on lowering trade barriers, said Mr Dethomas. But he predicted that the country will not meet EU requirements without deeper political and economic integration across North Africa. That could be a long time coming. North African efforts at creating a free trade area have foundered repeatedly on animosity between Morocco and Algeria, regional heavyweights divided by a closed land border and the frozen conflict in Western Sahara. Last month, Morocco's King Mohammed VI reiterated calls to Algeria to open up the frontier it sealed in 1994 and allow trade to flow freely between the countries. The rivalry plays out in the countries' approach to Europe, said Haizam Amirah Fernandez, a researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid. While Morocco has been eager to engage with the EU, oil-rich Algeria has hesitated. "For Morocco it's a way to distance itself from its competing regional power and build closer relations with Paris, Brussels and Madrid," said Mr Fernandez. European countries have responded by making Morocco their favoured partner in North Africa. "Both France and Spain are worried for the stability of the kingdom and would like to provide support for the monarchy," said Mr Fernandez. Morocco has experienced a spurt of economic growth recently, but remains plagued by high rates of illiteracy and unemployment, and a strain of Islamic radicalism that has occasionally turned violent. This month authorities said police had arrested a group of Islamists suspected of plotting bank robberies to finance the purchase of weapons. The government says it has dismantled some 60 terrorist cells since suicide bombings tore through the commercial capital, Casablanca, in 2003, killing 45 people. About 1,000 people are imprisoned on terrorism charges. Human rights groups say antiterrorism crackdowns have swept many innocents into jail, a claim they say is overlooked by foreign governments keen to partner with Morocco. "Most of the Islamist detainees have nothing to do with the Casablanca attacks," said Abderrahim Mouhtad, the president of an Naseer, a Casablanca-based non-governmental organisation campaigning for humane treatment of terrorist suspects. "I don't think the EU or any western country can talk about this - it's off-limits." "We have a dialogue on human rights that is relaxed and frank," said Mr Dethomas, the EU delegation chief. While problems remain, overall respect for human rights in Morocco has improved dramatically in recent years, he said. A more persistent headache for EU leaders hoping to spur integration in North Africa is the Western Sahara conflict pitting Morocco against the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed independence movement. "The Western Sahara conflict is difficult for Europe, because public opinion is divided," said Mr Dethomas. "But it's primarily a problem for Morocco and Algeria." Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 after its coloniser, Spain, withdrew. A subsequent war with Polisario ended in a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991. Morocco now proposes autonomy for Western Sahara, while Polisario wants a referendum with independence as an option. This month, Polisario's leader, Mohammed Abdelaziz, objected to Morocco's advanced status with the EU while meeting European leaders in Brussels. Polisario has also called an EU-Morocco fisheries deal illegal because it allows European boats into disputed Western Sahara waters. The EU says it supports efforts by the UN to help Morocco and Polisario agree on a solution. Mr Dethomas said Europe's own success at burying past enmity following the Second World War should inspire North African governments. "We're happy engaging in bilateral relations, but we prefer dialogue that is region-to-region." jthorne@thenational.ae