Tensions have been running high between the European Union and Morocco in recent weeks. The breakdown in relations intensified on 17 May, when Moroccan border guards stepped down and allowed thousands of migrants to converge at the border of the Spanish exclave town of Ceuta.
Footage quickly emerged of Spanish soldiers and border forces pushing the migrants back into the sea – outraging human rights advocates. However, the Spanish government won the blessing and support of the European Union. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on 18 May: “EU stands in solidarity with Ceuta & Spain.”
Tensions were further escalated during last week’s Strasbourg Plenary session of the European Parliament, when outraged MEPs called for the European Union to introduce sanctions on Morocco and punish it for allowing this rush of migrants. Relations between the Maghreb Kingdom and the European Union have never been so poor as they are today.
Morocco & EU: Years of Harmony
The reality, however, is that this escalation risks becoming a historic blunder for the European Union. Choosing to alienate Morocco as a result of this incident risks breaking apart a stable and cooperative relationship with a vital regional ally.
For decades, Morocco has been a pillar of stability in an otherwise turbulent region – it has cooperated with Europe on preventing migrant crossings and has been a reliable trading partner.
On a broader scale, it has been a trusted ally of the West. Whilst other nations in the region have given into the lure of radical political Islamism, Morocco has remained comparatively open and tolerant. The normalisation of relations with Israel, as an extension of the Abraham Accords last year, stands testament to that fact.
Increasing Challenges for Morocco
And these areas that have made Morocco such a reliable partner are why the country is now struggling. It is buckling under the weight of migrants that are stopped within the country – spending millions of dollars every year on border security instead of on growing its economy. In fact, Morocco spends half a billion dollars each year on holding back migrants and patrolling a 3500 km coastline. The European Union only contributes to about 4% of the total budget.
On top of all of this, Morocco is facing pressure from its neighbours. The regime in Algeria has for several decades been trying to actively destabilise and undermine the country. In December 2020 – after Morocco had normalised relations with Israel, the Algerian Prime Minister accused the government of giving into ‘Zionist Pressures’ – in a blatant attempt to ignite islamist sentiments inside the country.
At the same time, Morocco has been fighting a decades-long civil war in the Western Sahara region against a separatist movement. Whilst Morocco has control of around 80% of the territory, sporadic fighting continues in rural areas. For many years, the Moroccan government has suspected Algerian involvement in the region.
It is because of these three major pressures on the Moroccan government – alongside the usual growing pains of any other developing North African nation including a young population, brain drain and an 8% unemployment rate – that the country is struggling to manage them all.
Spain Incurs Morocco’s Wrath
So, when the socialist government in Spain allowed Brahim Ghali – leader of the Polisario Front which wants independence for Western Sahara – to be treated for COVID in Madrid under a false passport, it is understandable that the Moroccan government might feel burnt, especially given that he had arrived on 28 April – and his presence was not made public until late May.
Mr Ghali had in fact been flown from Algeria – confirming Algerian involvement with the separatist movement. The Moroccan government reprimanded the Spanish government, claiming that it was an entirely ‘premeditated act’ that showed that Spain did not respect the Moroccan position regarding Western Sahara.
On 2 June, 71-year-old Brahim Ghali left Madrid and flew to Algeria via military transport. He was transferred to a military hospital in Algiers where he was visited by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
Ceuta: Morocco’s Reaction
Still facing heavy pressure from migrants on top of the diplomatic spat with Spain, the Moroccan government decided rather than taking direct action, it would take passive action. Border guards were told to stop patrolling the area around the Spanish city of Ceuta, which is on the Moroccan mainland.
In this context, the influx of migrants on 17 May no longer looks like the hostile actions of a rogue state trying to blackmail the European Union, but rather a desperate attempt to draw attention to the fact that the country is overburdened and needs support.
Why the EU Needs a New Approach
The risk, however, is that the European Union will not listen to Rabat, but rather will side with Madrid, ignoring the internal situation in Morocco, and further destabilising the country. The real problem with these recent events – is that the EU doesn’t understand the nuance of what’s currently going on in the country.
For a few years now, Morocco has been blamed for a long list of problems in Europe that aren’t their own. The majority of migrants that try crossing from Morocco don’t come from there but rather from sub-Saharan Africa, yet they take the blame. And when the Moroccan diaspora in Europe is caught up in extremism – mostly caused by ghettoization and demonisation in Western Europe – Morocco again takes the blame, which is something that is comparable to blaming the farmer for the fact that you dropped and broke a carton of eggs.
Rather than demonising and sanctioning the country, the European Union needs to take a different approach. It needs to adopt stronger measures to support Morocco as a frontline country in the fight to stop people trafficking. It needs to help develop the Moroccan economy so that more of its own people stay there for work instead of looking to Europe. And it needs to support the security of the country against hostile neighbours in Algeria and Mauritania.
Should the European Union fail, it risks creating yet another unstable and uncooperative player in the region, which down the line could prove to be just as devastating as when the West lost Turkey.
Robert Tyler is senior policy advisor at New Direction – Foundation for European Reform