Les frères ennemis: Europe’s balancing act between Morocco and Algeria

Morocco’s recent ascension to the African Union’s Peace and Security Council is an important indication of its rising influence on the African stage. But the EU overlooks Morocco’s rival Algeria at its peril.

Algeria and Morocco share much in terms of language, religion, history and ethnic identities, but they also share a sometimes fierce rivalry for power and influence that is now playing out at the African Union. The Western Sahara question is at the heart of contemporary tensions between Morocco and Algeria, but the roots of this rivalry run deeper, rooted in very different founding myths of the nation state and post-colonial ideologies.

Moroccan foreign policy on the continent may seem to align more closely with European priorities in light of the “advanced status” of EU-Moroccan relations under the ENP, Morocco’s willingness to actively engage with the EU on the G5 Sahel, and close cooperation on migration and counter-terrorism. Morocco is also in the process of negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU. This contrasts with the somewhat slower pace of the EU’s relationship with Algeria.

Moroccan influence in Africa is also on the rise following the Kingdom’s adoption of a formidable diplomatic strategy on the continent. Yet despite these trends pointing in favour of closer EU cooperation with Morocco, European actors should be careful to maintain a fine balance in how they approach the Moroccan-Algerian rivalries in Africa.

Morocco on the rise

Thirty-two years after leaving the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in protest against the membership of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Morocco was admitted to its successor organisation, the African Union, in January 2017. Its accession – despite the opposition of heavyweights Algeria, South Africa and Nigeria, was aided by a whole basket of diplomatic tools.

These included aggressive economic diplomacy (which has seen Morocco become the largest African investor into the rest of Africa), strong religious and cultural ties with neighbours, as well as  the king’s intense schedule of travel across the continent.

Morocco has also increasingly presented itself as a champion of African causes, (for example in regard to development and migration) and it is poised to join the top 5 contributors to the AU, which will further amplify its voice on the continent. The appointment of Morocco as migration coordinator for the AU at a time when migration dominates the European agenda further increases Morocco’s role as a key African interlocutor for European actors.

But not so simple…

During January’s AU summit in Addis Ababa, Morocco took one of North Africa’s two seats on the AU’s primary security organ, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) after Algeria pulled out of the contest, claiming to do so on the principle of rotation of seats. This led some commentators, particularly in Morocco, to argue that Morocco had managed to gain the upper hand in this round, leaving Algeria with no choice but to withdraw its candidacy due to Moroccan momentum.

But it is worth noting that Morocco was one of the only states to take its seat without unanimity. Opposition to Morocco’s bid largely reflects the continued support for Western Saharan self-determination by approximately one-third of AU members. It is widely expected that Morocco will use its new position to attempt to block discussion of the Western Sahara question, arguing that the AU should support the UN process.

Morocco’s position on Western Sahara, which it partially occupies, looks set to be a disruptive force in the AU. Indeed this has already proved to be the case, leading to the cancellation of a meeting of AU finance ministers and the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Dakar in March 2017 due to Moroccan objections to the participation of the Polisario Front, representing SADR.

Meanwhile, the EU has a rather ambivalent position with regard to Western Sahara, while member states’ positions vary, with France tending to align itself most closely with Morocco’s position. A European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in December 2015, stating that a EU-Morocco agriculture agreement was illegal due to its inclusion of Western Sahara caused Morocco to temporarily suspend relations, but the European Commission worked closely with Morocco to circumvent the ruling. A similar ruling on fisheries in February this year seems likely to lead to further close cooperation between HRVP Mogherini and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to find a solution, as suggested by their joint statement.    

Algeria still influential

The EU correctly observes that Morocco is becoming a more prominent player in the region, but it would be a mistake to underestimate Algeria’s continued influence. While President Bouteflika’s health issues mean he no longer provides Algeria with the formidable voice it once had at the African Union, Algeria has long been a heavyweight of the organisation, emerging from its independence war as a leading voice in Third World anti-colonial solidarity.

The civil war of the 1990s caused Algeria to recede somewhat from the limelight, but it again emerged as a leading regional actor in the 2000s and has since used its experience of the civil war to play up its credentials as a leader on counter-terrorism. It is one of the AU’s main financial contributors along with South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and until recently Angola.

It has also supported efforts to strengthen AU institutions, notably playing a key role in designing the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), while the position of African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security has been held by Algerians since its creation in 2002. Algeria is also Counter-terrorism coordinator for the AU, and hosts The African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT) and the African Police Organisation (Afripol), which launched last May.

Algeria’s continued importance was most recently demonstrated by the visit by AU Commission President Moussa Faki Mahamat to Algiers, which appears to have been aimed at securing Algerian support for the AU’s ambitious reform agenda, which will be the subject of the upcoming Kigali conference on 21 March.

While EU relations with Algeria have improved since 2016, with the negotiation of new partnership priorities under the ENP last Spring, and an informal dialogue on regional security and the fight against terrorism bringing HRVP Mogherini and Algerian Foreign Minister Messahel together in October 2017. However, the less diversified trade relationship, together with Algerian reservations about European policy in its backyard, mean that the relationship remains a slightly more distant one.

The Sahel

From a European perspective, the Sahel is undoubtedly the arena where Moroccan and Algerian influence is of greatest importance. Morocco certainly appears to have a strong soft power influence in the region, where its imam training programmes have earned it notice in Europe (and been extended to some European countries), although questions have been raised about the efficacy of these programmes. Morocco’s economic links with the region are growing, including in banking, telecommunications, and agriculture. Meanwhile, unlike his Algerian counterpart, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita participated in the G5 Sahel Conference in Brussels on 23 February, and Morocco has promised to support the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel with training and border security.

Algeria, meanwhile, is not prepared to cooperate in the Sahel on Europe’s terms, opting for bilateral relations with the countries of the Sahel, and its own somewhat ineffective regional coordination mechanisms, rather than cooperating on the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel.

But Algeria is still the most important security partner in the region, maintaining strong security ties with the countries of the region. As Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia highlighted at the AU-EU Summit in Abidjan in November, Algeria has also provided considerable funds to support the security of its neighbours in the Sahel and Libya.

Europeans should certainly continue to work with Morocco in the Sahel, particularly given the weakness of Europe’s own soft power tools in the region, but even if these Moroccan initiatives are popular with European policy makers, they will not substitute for a more developed strategy addressing economic and governance issues.

European actors should also seek to deepen their understanding of Algerian interests in the region and be prepared to engage with Algeria on its terms when it comes to regional security, rather than pushing Algeria to give up on long-held positions relating to non-intervention. The EU-Algeria informal dialogue on regional security in October 2017 was a good first step in this regard.


European actors should thus be careful in how they work with Morocco and Algeria in Africa. European actors, particularly France and Spain, are already regarded to be less than neutral on the question of Western Sahara, particularly following their support of Morocco’s 2007 autonomy plan, and if such perceptions extend to other areas of cooperation in Africa, Europe risks alienating Algeria still further.

Moroccan influence on the African continent is likely to continue to rise, while Algeria’s presence at the African Union will most likely remain lower-profile until Bouteflika’s successor is in place. However, while Morocco may eventually win the remaining stalwarts over to its cause with regard to Western Sahara, in the meantime the question continues to divide the AU.

Further, given the history of Algerian engagement on the continent and its continued importance in the counter-terrorism and security arenas, Algerian influence is unlikely to be so easily eclipsed. This is particularly true for the Sahel, where European actors should continue to be careful in balancing close cooperation and apparently shared interests with Morocco on the one hand, with a more difficult, but potentially deeply beneficial relationship with Algeria on the other. Algeria’s long borders with the Sahel make it simply too important to ignore.

Both Morocco and Algeria are likely to continue to play an important role in Africa going forward. The EU, and it member states, should thus continue to position themselves as useful partners and interlocutors for both.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator, Middle East and North Africa

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.