The Moroccan regime, led by King Mohammed VI, rules over a country lacking in energy resources and plagued by persistent socioeconomic problems and a long-running territorial dispute over Western Sahara (a territory to which it has a pre-colonial claim). Morocco sees the European Union as a key source of support in addressing these problems. This gives the EU significant influence in Morocco – even as the country moves to strengthen its hand in the relationship.
Morocco depends on European trade, financial aid, and diplomatic support over Western Sahara. It particularly values its relationship with France, which the monarchy sees as its most steadfast ally. However, the Moroccan authorities regard Morocco’s overdependence on Europe as a source of weakness. Indeed, to maintain trade relations and continue to receive bilateral aid from the EU, the Moroccan regime has often had to accept trade restrictions and criticism of its human rights record from some European countries. In recent years, this has led Moroccan decision-makers to diversify the country’s support base, by strengthening ties with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and by seeking out new relationships with non-traditional partners, such as China and Russia.
Morocco’s economic overdependence on Europe stems from the EU’s position as both the kingdom’s main trading partner and its largest source of bilateral aid. Indeed, Morocco is the biggest beneficiary of EU aid in the Mediterranean, having received billions of euros from both the European Neighbourhood Instrument and the European Investment Bank between 2014 and 2017.
While the regime views EU aid and trade in a positive light, it has been irritated by Europe’s criticism of its approach to human rights – especially that linked to the repression that followed the 2011 Arab uprisings – and its refusal until recently to negotiate over Western Sahara. This could be seen in King Mohammed VI’s speech at the 2016 GCC summit, at the height of the tension between Morocco and some international organisations (including the EU and the United Nations) over the territorial dispute. He made clear that the regime would not accept any interference in its domestic politics.
Aware that Morocco’s economic survival depends on trade with Europe and EU aid, Rabat has worked to maintain good relations with the bloc despite this tension. Even in his speech at the summit, the king insisted that, while Morocco forged new alliances with Russia and China, it would strive to maintain its partnerships with its current allies (such as EU states). Nonetheless, these new partnerships allow Morocco to strengthen its negotiating position vis-à-vis Europe.
Security and migration concerns
In the last few years, as disorder resulting from the Arab uprisings grew across the region, security concerns about terrorism, migration, and state breakdown have dominated EU-north African relations. Morocco is a rare zone of relative stability in a volatile region. This has allowed Morocco to present itself as a reliable ally for Europe and a safe destination for European investment, as well as a major player in resolving the crisis of radicalisation in north Africa and stopping terrorist plots before they unfold on European soil (especially in Belgium, France, and Spain). This gives the regime leverage in its dealings with the EU, offsetting its dependence on European financial and diplomatic support.
Morocco also increasingly uses its role in limiting irregular migration to Europe, particularly Spain, to strengthen its hand in its relations with the EU. Many Moroccan citizens have high regard for Europe – although this appears to be changing. According to a study by EU Neighbours South, the share of Moroccans who viewed the EU positively fell by 13 percentage points between 2017 and 2018. However, even with the drop, 59 percent of respondents still had a positive view of the EU. Many Moroccan respondents linked the bloc to concepts such as human rights, democracy, and individual freedoms. European cultural influence in Morocco is enhanced partly by television and social media, especially that from France and Spain.
Furthermore, many young people in Morocco idealise life in Europe, making it a major attraction for migrants from the country. The percentage of respondents who argue that the EU should play a greater role in their country – through trade, economic development, and migration – is higher in Morocco than in any other state in the Maghreb. Indeed, a striking 71 percent of Moroccan respondents think that the EU has a positive impact on their country’s development. In this environment, the EU can boost the reach it has in Morocco through aid programmes directed at local communities.
The Moroccan regime knows it cannot survive without European trade and aid. However, its diversification efforts – through alliances with GCC and African countries, as well as China and, potentially, Russia – will make it less dependent on the EU in the future. Morocco’s role in constraining irregular migration and fighting terrorism will continue to make it a valuable ally for the EU. Morocco will be less likely to accept EU criticism of its human rights record or its territorial dispute – although it will likely continue to heed recommendations on its economy for so long as it receives EU funding. French-Moroccan relations will remain strong. Paris may even increase its influence in Morocco, not least due to the extremely positive views of France among both the regime and the population.
Finally, and most importantly, the Western Sahara dispute will remain a red line for the Moroccan regime in its relations with Europe. Morocco has welcomed the EU’s apparent acceptance of this fact, as reflected in the position adopted in June 2019 by Federica Mogherini, then the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy. The Moroccan regime will almost certainly distance itself from the EU and its member states if it believes that they have supported any infringement of Moroccan territorial sovereignty.