Minister: EU-Morocco pact is about having relationship we both deserve

The relaunch of EU-Morocco relations can benefit the region , says Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

A week after the EU and Morocco launched plans for an ambitious new trade and political deal at the Morocco-EU Association Council, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita explained in an exclusive interview how his country wants to build its relationship with the EU.

Nasser Bourita spoke with EURACTIV’s Benjamin Fox.

The EU needs partners in North Africa to work with it on migration control. What does your government hope to gain from its relations with the EU?

First of all, let me say that the EU needs partners in North Africa to work with, not only on migration issues but on all issues of common interest.

Migration is not a ‘standalone’ issue, it is part of a global partnership. Nor is it solely a control issue.

As His Majesty Mohammed VI said in his message to the Marrakech Conference that adopted the Global Compact on Migration: “The side of the border on which a migrant stands does not make him or her more or less human. Addressing security concerns should go hand in hand with socio-economic development policies which tackle the root causes of risky migration.”

On this basis, I can say that Morocco is a reliable partner:

We have been working tirelessly to strengthen control of our borders and prevent a large number of irregular departures, and we are effectively fighting against human trafficking networks and dismantling criminal organizations that abuse and exploit migrants in a vulnerable situation.

We have developed exemplary cooperation in this area with many EU members. We can extend the positive results of this partnership to the European level.

The shift to the western Mediterranean migration route has had a tremendous impact on us. The route between Morocco and Spain has become one of, if not the main illegal entry route into Europe for migrants. Despite this increased pressure, we have enhanced legal pathways and regularized the situation of more than 50.000 African migrants.

Morocco, which has traditionally been considered a country of emigration and transit, is now also a country of immigration. As such, it is quite natural for Morocco to understand the constraints expressed by many of its European neighbours, while at the same time demonstrating authentic solidarity with its African brothers.

Your government, and the Monarch, has had a strategy of making Morocco a bridge between Europe and the African continent. Is that a fair assessment?

It is an assessment one could make. Morocco being a bridge between Europe and Africa is not so much a strategic endeavour as a natural situation. Given the historical relations and geographical proximity we share, it is logical that Morocco should be the gateway to Africa for European and international counterparts.

Morocco has had institutional relations with Europe since the 1960s and both parties have enjoyed fruitful cooperation since then, culminating to the Advanced Status of 2008, upgrading the Euromed process and the Association agreement, among other mechanisms. There are only a few countries that share such an advanced partnership with the EU.

At the same time, Morocco is deeply rooted in its continent. We have been actively engaged in the development of our African continent, as we believe it needs to further strengthen its economic and political integration. In this regard, we have reunited with our African institutional family and sought to engage on a wide range of issues both bilaterally and multilaterally with our African brothers and sisters. We are also part of an African free trade area which offers a plethora of opportunities, first for Africa, but also for international actors.

In essence, Morocco is a hub and a facilitator for all things European into Africa, but it does not necessarily aspire to being a bridge between both counterparts. It is a de facto situation which is built on the standing and status of Morocco both in and outside of Africa.

Are you seeking to establish a ’privileged’ relationship with the EU?

It is not about having a “privileged relationship”, it is about having the relationship we both deserve.

We are ambitious, but we are also very pragmatic. Neither of us is looking for something he cannot have. Through time, Morocco and the EU have built solid relations. They have been challenged and attacked, but they have proven their resilience and are now mature enough to take the next step.

It means that we are committed to making full use of lessons learned from the past. Now, while we are celebrating 50 years of rich and fruitful relations, it is time for our partnership to go further.

Morocco has always been a locomotive of EU relations with its southern neighbourhood, from the very first Association Agreement to being the very first country to benefit from the Advanced Status.

The 14th Association council, that took place in Brussels last week, demonstrated how important Morocco is to the EU, and how important the EU is to Morocco.

The adoption of a joint political declaration was a real milestone. It laid the foundations for a renewed relationship. We both agreed on enhancing a new dynamic to our already ’strategic, multidimensional and privileged relationship’.

Our relations are now part of a ‘Euro-Moroccan partnership for shared prosperity’. This implies a paradigm shift, based on equality. The same declaration insists on how important it is to build a partnership of equals to the benefit of the shared interests of both parties.

If we can expand it, inspire others and even strengthen regional and Euro-African cooperation, it would be for the benefit of everyone.

I have said it before and I will say it again – Morocco is not looking for exclusivity. Morocco seeks co-development, growth and complementarity, and the Kingdom invests all means to achieve it.

The status of Western Sahara remains a point of controversy. The Polisario Front says that it will continue to file legal cases to the ECJ challenging the validity of Morocco’s trade agreement with the EU. Is this dispute going to continue to disrupt relations with the EU?

By no mean is the Sahara issue a point of controversy between Morocco and the EU.

Some ‘parties’ would like that to be the case. But to their despair, the EU clarified its positions once and for all during the last Association Council. It was a historical moment, because for the very first time, we had a common language on the Moroccan Sahara.

The Joint Political Declaration left no room for false interpretations. Indeed, it underlined that “the two sides reaffirm their support for the efforts made by the UN Secretary-General to continue the political process aiming to reach a just, realistic, pragmatic, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to the Sahara issue, based on compromise and in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions, and in particular Resolution 2468 of 30 April 2019”.

It also highlighted that “the EU takes positive note of Morocco’s serious and credible efforts in this respect as reflected in the above-mentioned resolution and encourages all parties to pursue their commitment in a spirit of realism and compromise, in the context of arrangements consistent with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter”.

For the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, this gives hope for the future. And I fully share this opinion. Those ‘parties’ you mentioned, have tried to attack and challenge our Partnership with the EU more than once. And every time, they fail and lose. The ECJ found no sort of element to invalidate the free-trade agreement between Morocco and the EU.

Instead of harming the EU-Morocco Partnership, these attacks made it stronger and more resilient than ever. More than 2/3 of the last European Parliament voted in favour of the EU-Morocco agreements on Agriculture and fisheries.

This being said, I hope that European justice will not become the theatre or the playground of illegitimate and propaganda-seeking protagonists.

But you know, when you are on the side of legality, you can only be serene and have nothing to worry about.

What is the timeline for negotiating the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement?

The main step is to agree on what we would like to achieve through a renewed form of the trade agreement.

In order for us to know what should be deepened and to which sectors our economic cooperation ought to be extended, we need to look into what has been achieved within the current framework.

From the current situation, we must assess the effects the free trade framework has had in the past 20 years. Has it been setting a fair trade dynamic, or has it increasingly resulted in a deficit to the detriment of Morocco? We should evaluate the full extent of the impacts that this framework had in the previous period.

Besides this evaluation, one has to take into account that along the past 20 years the economic strategies of both Morocco and the EU have evolved. The EU has signed several free trade agreements with Asian countries which have impacted Morocco’s comparative advantage. Morocco has further developed its industrial strategies, it has also recently joined the African continental free trade area.

All these settings must be taken into account while drawing the guidelines of our future economic cooperation area which we will start designing within dedicated working groups in the following months.

The joint communique talks about Morocco’s participation in EU agencies and programmes. Can you give more detail on what EU programmes and agencies Morocco would like to participate in?

Our participation in programs and agencies flows naturally from common priorities which have been agreed upon during the preparation of the Association Council. These priorities are structured in the four areas of cooperation presented in the joint declaration.

As an illustration, it seems necessary to enhance the integration of Moroccan universities in EU programmes supporting research and innovation. More generally, participation in programmes and agencies in relation with higher education and skills acquisition have to be contemplated in order to build an area of shared knowledge.

Programmes related to technical aspects of energy and climate change are also very relevant for Morocco to join in. There is high Convergence between Morocco and the EU on these stakes which will be integrated into all cooperation areas of our partnership.

You have ruled out the possibility of EU-funded migration centres in Morocco. What do you think an EU-Morocco partnership on migration control should mean in practice?

We have ruled out the possibility of EU-funded migration centres in Morocco for four main reasons. Because we think they would be ineffective: detention centres do not stop migration flows; they would be counterproductive: they increase the risks of human tracking and smuggling, they do not reflect on a long-term vision, migration routes are likely to evolve, and they would be inevitably dangerous, they do not offer guarantees in terms of migrants’ human rights.

With this in mind, a partnership between Morocco and the EU on migration should be based on three assumptions: migration management is a shared responsibility; migration can be a powerful tool for development; cooperation on migration cannot be regarded exclusively in security terms.

In practice, cooperation with the EU on migration should have a human dimension that promotes the well-being of migrants. It is a two-way process that establishes rights and obligations for both migrants and host communities.  It must lead to a new concept of mobility, which is part of the relaunch of relations between Morocco and the EU.

The African Migration Observatory established at the initiative of His Majesty King Mohammed VI and endorsed by the African Union can be the subject of close collaboration with the EU, in terms of capacity building for data collection.

We are seeking a qualitative approach, not a quantitative one. The increase in financial support to Morocco must be seen in its context, that of increased migratory pressures on the Western Mediterranean. Morocco does not perceive this increase as a “reward” but as an adjustment that aims to be proportional to the pressure suffered by Morocco.

If it meets these criteria, I am confident that the partnership on migration between Africa and the EU can be established on the pattern of the EU- Morocco partnership on migration.

You said last week that the relationship between the EU and Morocco was “losing its way and its substance”. Was this purely because of the dispute over Western Sahara?

This is not actually the idea I have expressed. In fact, a relationship as old and as rich as the Morocco-EU partnership must be continuously ambitious and constantly creative. But, in recent years, we have made the observation that we feel the partnership is somehow too conservative. Our partnership is too valuable to be left in a standstill. It must go forward.

Accordingly, the European Neighbourhood Policy should not be the ceiling for our common ambitions. The Morocco-EU relationship has always been based on continuous evolution and on a strong institutional framework; not evolving would not be a stop, but a step backwards.

Indeed, the relationship needed to be reinvented because both actors have evolved on multiple levels. Our economic structure and our industrial priorities have changed while our society is moving forward. For its part, the EU has also experienced changes and questions as a result of the evolution of its societies. In rethinking its model, the EU must also raise its ambitions towards Morocco. It was, therefore, appropriate and even necessary for Morocco to adapt its relationship in light of these developments while choosing what would be best for our relationship.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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