EU-US-Morocco: Strategic triangle in a ‘wider’ Atlantic

  
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The Arab Spring did not reach Morocco, but the country became a bastion of moderation – religious, social and political – in an otherwise turbulent region, writes Daniel Novotny.

Dr. Daniel Novotny is director of the Global Europe think-tank (www.global-europe.org).

The ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, the protracted instability and growing turmoil throughout North Africa and the Middle East (MENA), together with wider, longer-term trends in transatlantic relations, underscore the importance of ‘wider’ Atlanticism. While most of the key trends affecting global security and economics are now being played out to the south of the prevailing Brussels-Washington axis, these two predominant powers have so far largely failed to form a coherent strategic approach to encourage long-term security and democratic stability across the MENA region. To this end, the influential ‘Atlantic Council’ has recently published a study whose title ‘US and EU: Lack of Strategic Vision, Frustrated Efforts Toward the Arab Transitions’ says it all. A joint American-European strategic approach would be important not only for the MENA region but also for the long-term interests of the transatlantic allies.

Therefore, when President Obama met his Moroccan counterpart, King Muhammad VI, for the first time for talks in Washington on 22 November, EU leaders were advised to watch closely. Underpinned by the longest unbroken treaty relationship in United States history, the US and Moroccan leaders discussed a raft of important topics that are also relevant to the EU: notably the strategic dialogue launched between the two countries, or the Free Trade Agreement, which came into force in 2006, and worsening security situation around the wider region. In fact, Morocco is faced with the prospect of an increasingly unstable hinterland in West Africa and the Sahel, the ensuing threat of violent spillovers on its territory, a situation that is further complicated by the long-stalled Maghreb integration process, and a more difficult relationship with Algeria, as well as potentially with European neighbors.

While the American and European policy-makers should pay a close attention to these inherent risks facing Morocco, they should concurrently weigh them against emerging opportunities in the context of the dramatically changing security and geo-economics. Firstly, at the time when most regional states are experiencing a growing instability and worrisome resurgence of radical Islam, Morocco's shrewd preventive strategies in countering violent extremism have strengthened moderate strains of Islam in the country. It is a bastion of moderation – religious, social and political – in an otherwise turbulent region. Secondly, the rise of Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa or, for example, Angola as emerging economies, along with the developments in offshore energy production and trade, is bound to extend the traditional ‘northern’ notion of Atlanticism to include the ‘south’ – here, ‘wider’ Atlanticism may finally come to the fore. The growing emphasis on north-south and south-south relations, underpinned by the country’s relative stability and moderation, has made Morocco a natural candidate to serve as a prospective hub – both logistical-economic and political-diplomatic – in this emerging wider Atlantic world.

Against the backdrop of the extraordinary flux in its current strategic environment that span across multiple regions, Morocco is pursuing a multi-continent and multi-contingency approach to its foreign relations. While the existing economic and strategic ties to Europe and the United States will, by virtue of their scale and geographic proximity, remain critically important, Rabat is simultaneously seeking to reinforce its Atlantic strategy by forming closer ties with Brazil and key African states. 

Diversification is the game of the day: Morocco is balancing its European, American, Maghrebi, Mediterranean, West African, and Atlantic relations to hedge against risks from any of these quarters. But while the EU and US will undoubtedly remain Morocco’s strategically most important partners, as Gerd Nenneman, an analyst with Chatham House, observed in 2005, their relationship could be seen from a distinct triangular perspective characterised by a degree of competition: “Morocco depends largely on its economic, financial and trade links with the EU. But once again, Morocco is trying to create a new triangle, this time at the economic level. In order to try to get a better deal with the EU, Morocco is accelerating the pace of its negotiations with the US towards creating a free trade zone with that country.”

It remains to be seen if the visit of the King Mohammed VI to the United States has marked a shift in relations between the two countries in that Morocco will increasingly position itself as the primary US interlocutor in the wider region. In any case, rather than jockeying for economic and political influence in Morocco, it is in the interest of both the EU and US to coordinate their strategies towards the country and the whole MENA region. In particular, Brussels and Washington should recognise Morocco as a leading stakeholder in any wholesale reinvention of the Euro-Mediterranean and wider Atlantic strategy, while fostering Morocco’s positive role in Africa, notably in offering solutions to long-standing regional challenges. Well-coordinated, joint EU and US assistance, which leverages Morocco’s experience and extensive economic, social, cultural, and security ties in Central and West Africa, could foster inclusive economic growth and stability and promote democratization in sub-Saharan Africa. Both trans-Atlantic partners must also clearly articulate their commitment to greater regional economic cooperation and integration in the Maghreb. The European Union, on its part, should seek to reshape the European approach to its southern neighborhood and try to think more imaginatively about Morocco’s role as a hub for regional integration and commerce in the wider Atlantic.”

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