EUToday Exclusive: Endre Barcs talks to German MEP Lars Patrick Berg on the growing partnership between Morocco and the EU
Morocco, under the tutelage of King Mohammed VI, who ascended to the throne in July 1999 upon the death of his father, King Hassan II, has emerged as a key strategic partner for the EU.
The country’s location, just a short hop across the Straits of Gibraltar, makes it an affective bridge between North Africa and Europe. The recent development of the Tanger-Med passenger and cargo port, conceived by The King himself, has strengthened Morocco’s position.
The Strait itself is a crossing point for around 20% of global trade, with 100,000 ships per year transiting the 14km wide waters that separate Africa from Europe.
Endre Barcs had the opportunity to discuss the relationship between the EU and Morocco, and the prospects for the future, with German MEP Lars Patrick Berg,
Q: Dear Mr Berg, you have visited Morocco on a number of occasions, and you are also a member of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries and the Arab Maghreb Union, including the EU-Morocco Joint Parliamentary Committee. What is your general opinion about current EU-Morocco relations?
Mr Berg: “Morocco is one of the partners of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership which is one of the key initiatives of the European Neighbourhood Policy, through which the EU offers its neighbours a special relationship. The key objective of the trade partnership is the creation of a free trade area, which aims at removing barriers to trade and investment between both the EU member countries and between the Southern Mediterranean countries themselves. Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements are in force with most of the partners.
“The EU-Morocco Agreement establishing an association between the European Communities and the EU Member States, of the one part, and the Kingdom of Morocco, of the other part, and applying to imports into the EU of agricultural products originating in Morocco and also applying to imports into the EU of fishery products originating in Morocco, while on the other hand gives the possibility to the EU member countries to the export of European agricultural products to Morocco. Thanks to the Agreement the EU is Morocco’s largest trading partner, accounting for 59,4% of its trade in 2017. 64,6 % of Morocco’s exports went to the EU, and 56,5% of Morocco’s imports came from the EU. Morocco is the EU’s 22nd trading partner representing 1,0% of the EU’s total trade with the world.”
Q: The free trade area that operates around the TANGER-MED port has attracted considerable investment from European companies, notably from auto-manufacturers. Would you see that as a threat to the EU, or as an opportunity?
Mr Berg: ‘I see it as a great possibility for the future trade between the EU countries and Morocco as Tangier is a sea of opportunities with the launch of the Mediterraneans largest port just 14 km away from the European southern coastline.
The city on Morocco’s northern shore has evolved from a melting pot of Arabs, Jews, Berbers and became an international trade and logistics hub by today. Tangier plays basic importance in the EU-Morocco trade, as it is connected by high-speed trains to the capital city Rabat and also Casablanca, and by modern highways to the rest of the country’.
Q: In the context of Brexit, and loss of access to UK fishing waters, the current EU-Morocco fisheries Agreement (which runs until July 2023), becomes even more important. Are there other areas in which you see scope for enhanced co-operation between the EU and Morocco?
Mr Berg: ‘As I mentioned earlier the EU has traditionally seen Morocco as a key partner in the Euro-African and the Euro-Mediterranean area, which can give a new impetus to their “strategic, multidimensional and privileged partnership”. European companies choosing to invest in Morocco can enjoy Europes very close proximity, cost of production, availability and good quality of human resources, facility for import and export, tax incentives, the stability of dirham to euro. That is why major European companies have already established themselves for instance in Tanger Med Port, including first of all the automotive industries.
‘I have to note here the Moroccan concerns that the new EU-Morocco trade agreements will continue to harm Morocco’s trade balance. Faced with growing scepticism within Moroccan civil society, the EU needs to respond with a trading strategy that not only promotes trade in goods but also lays the foundations for creating decent skilled jobs, promoting the voluntary sector, consolidating labour rights and protecting the environment.’
Q: Given Morocco’s important geo-strategic position, and the current security threats posed to Europe, would you say that the country has played a positive role in its management of current conflicts in North Africa – namely Western Sahara?
Mr Berg: ‘Without going into the details of the Western Sahara conflict I would say that to prevent future conflict and diminish possible openings for radicalisation, it is important for world and European leaders to recognise the democratic potential of Western Sahara for what it is: a rare opportunity for low-cost, high-yield democratic transition and the best possible outcome for citizens in the region. This requires negotiating terms of peace and concession with Morocco, as well as with France, as any alternative resolutions threaten regional stability to a greater extent.’
Q: Concerning immigration: Morocco is both a transit country and a destination for migrants moving north. Do you perceive any issues with illegal migration/people trafficking etc, coming from Morocco?
Mr Berg: ‘The area stretching between Spain and Morocco, known as the Western Mediterranean route, has long been used by migrants. For many years, it has also been the main route used by criminal networks to smuggle narcotics into the EU.
‘A decade ago, the vast majority of migrants travelling from Morocco to Spain were typically economic migrants from Algeria and Morocco, hoping to find jobs in Europe. Since then, they have increasingly been joined by sub-Saharan Africans, driven northwards by conflicts in Mali, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic. Before the COVID19 pandemic, the number of illegal border crossings detected in the Western Mediterranean almost tripled compared with the previous years. Migrants arriving in European territory from Morocco were from the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Gambia accounted for the highest number of arrivals.
‘Over the last three years, people smugglers have pocketed more than EUR 330 million from their criminal operations on the Western and Central Mediterranean migratory routes. And, with the shift in patterns of migration across the Mediterranean, we have also noticed a change in how these criminal groups are reaping their profits from the misery of migrants seeking to cross the sea.
‘FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, assists Spain in dealing with various types of cross-border crime, but all these efforts are in vain unless the European Union member states can agree a unified way forward. I remain an advocate of properly implementing the UN Conventions as they were originally intended. I am sad to say, but the new Pact on Migration and Asylum prepared by the European Commission in September this year still doesn’t give a clear picture of the immigration problem’.
Q: Do you feel that the secularisation of Moroccan society, which began under the rule of King Mohammed VI, has played a significant role in preventing radicalisation in the region?
Mr Berg: ‘Morocco’s security measures seem to have been relatively effective in preventing major terrorist attacks in the last few years. As I can see, the Moroccan state’s security-focused approach to countering extremism appears to be highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks.
‘Rabat has long worked to counter radical groups, particularly since the Casablanca bombings in 2003.
‘Accordingly, between 2002 and 2018, more than 3000 alleged jihadis were arrested, and 186 terrorist cells dismantled, includingÂ 65 cells linked to the Islamic State. We are also hearing about the successful reintegration of some former Salafi-jihadis whom King Mohamed VI pardoned since 2012. The apparent success is that several participants had their prison sentences shortened or even received a royal pardon encouraged scores of former jihadis to join this initiative in the hope of leaving prison.
‘Even Morocco’s socioeconomic development programs incorporate this over-securitised approach to extremism. For instance, since 2005 the Ministry of Interior has overseen the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), which aims, among other things, to fight the “breeding grounds” for radicalisation in Morocco’s impoverished areas’.