Europe must engage Morocco amid migrant crisis

Europe must engage Morocco amid migrant crisis

Europe must engage Morocco amid migrant crisis
A Moroccan boy swims using bottles as a float, near the fence between the Spanish-Moroccan border, after thousands of migrants swam across the border, in Ceuta, Spain, May 19, 2021. (Reuters)
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Should European governments have hoped that the global health emergency would stymie the flow of migrants from Africa, they were mistaken. As European central bankers conjured digital billions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, in poorer African countries lockdowns arguably have cost more lives than they have saved. The very real nature of this crisis knocked on Europe’s doors last month, as 8,000 migrants sought to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, bringing home the importance of collaboration with North African partners like Morocco.
The sum of Moroccan-Spanish relations reads like a catalogue of provocation and counter-measures. Events of last month, when migrants climbed border fences and swam from Morocco to the Spanish-governed enclave, were only the latest episode in a relationship that has always been fraught with tension. To Moroccans, the Iberian Peninsula is, for all intents and purposes, “terra irredenta” — the unredeemed Morocco that was. To Spain, Morocco’s strategic location makes it central to efforts to slow illegal migration into Europe; political opponents of which threaten to tear the EU apart.
The Moroccan authorities looked on as — at low tide and seemingly without warning — migrants were given the implicit nod to enter Spanish territory. As Spanish soldiers struggled under the sudden pressure, it was clear that the scenes that have become synonymous with the beaches of Greece, Italy and elsewhere could be repeated on Morocco’s border with Spain. As Madrid called the influx of migrants “a serious crisis for Spain and Europe” and Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles accused Morocco of blackmail, the Moroccan response was unequivocal: “We are not the policeman of Europe.”
Aside from events in Ceuta bringing home once again the urgency with which Europe’s migrant crisis must be solved, the episode highlighted how a troubled union will have to seek new strategies in its relations with third parties. In stating that “Morocco today is not that of yesterday,” the kingdom’s foreign minister shared an opinion that has a growing precedent in North Africa: That the interests of developing countries cannot be continually exploited in an attempt to ensure European security. With some 20,000 border guards, state-of-the-art infrastructure and considerable other resources deployed toward border security, it is not surprising that Moroccan policymakers consider themselves to be absorbing the overwhelming burden of European security.

Events in Ceuta are reflective of an increasingly nuanced and multipolar attitude in Morocco’s diplomatic relationships.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, surprised many by not condemning Moroccan inaction outright, instead highlighted that “stronger partnerships based on mutual trust and joint commitments with key partners like Morocco are crucial.” Following the summoning of its ambassadors to Germany and Spain, recent elements of Moroccan diplomacy have seemed surprising to many — and at times even completely confounding. However, to those that follow the country more closely, events in Ceuta are reflective of an increasingly nuanced and multipolar attitude in Morocco’s diplomatic relationships.
Where 20th-century Morocco was primarily concerned with standing on its own two feet, the kingdom’s wily leaders historically always played European powers off against each other to their benefit. Where once Morocco weighed in on divides over Protestantism and Catholicism, today it has widened its alliance network in a nod to its history. The US recognition of its claim to Western Sahara last December was founded on the relationship the two have enjoyed since 1786. Meanwhile, the normalization deal with Israel was, in many respects, a fait accompli for a country with such a deep Jewish history, with as many as a fifth of Israelis being of Moroccan origin. This year, amid the fallout from Brexit, the Morocco-UK Association Agreement has seen Rabat expand its relationship with the UK, while allowing Britain to mitigate the new difficulties of trade with Europe. Alongside these developments, events in Ceuta served to confirm a definite change in gear with a partner Europe cannot afford to operate without.
Despite the increased interdependencies brought about by globalization, natural and geographic borders remain a highly contentious and important reality in international affairs — as a doubling in illegal English Channel crossings to the UK illustrates. The porous nature of the online world, in which would-be migrants perceive the privileges of Europe that they do not share, is not immediately reconcilable with the borders that separate east from west. Amid instability or state failure across the Mediterranean following the popular revolutions in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Syria, the reality of political circumstances pushing migrants to desperation should be clear for European policymakers. It would, therefore, be highly irregular should, after recent events, EU leaders not reach a modus operandi with Morocco that is reflective of its proximity to Europe and the ever-increasing number of African migrants it hosts and provides for.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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