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Is there a role for the EU in the Moroccan Rif crisis?

For Rabat, the challenge will be to access the EU funds and more while getting away from any significant EU impact. That is, even if it means faking Europeanization.

lead Emmanuel Macron receives the King of Morocco Mohammed VI on 10 April 2018 in Paris. Christian Liewig/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Experts say EU-Morocco mutual stabilization strategy mostly benefits the regime in Morocco. Rabat is using its political relationship with Brussels as a strategy to credit and stabilize its regime, rather than as an opportunity to progress along the democratization path. And up to now Brussels has fully backed Morocco’s game of security and migration.

That is, at the expense of top priorities such as Europeanization of the Mediterranean southern shore and establishing a supranational power over member-states, including a protected non-member state such as Morocco. The EU, therefore, ought to review its policy. It ought to strike a balance between backing Moroccan top-down regionalization and supporting bottom-up Rifian regionalism. In particular, it ought to condition any likely Moroccan eligibility for European Structural Funds on the granting of autonomous rule to the Rif-region.

“Advanced regionalization” is the latest development in Rabat’s enduring EU solicitation strategy. Beyond security and migration cooperation, Rabat has always (and not unsuccessfully) sought maximal cooptation into the EU. By self-styling as a regionalized democracy, it obviously wishes for access to the European internal market, to diverse EU funds, and it ultimately wishes for political recognition of its autocratic regime and its autonomy proposal for Western Sahara. Rabat has always (and not unsuccessfully) sought maximal cooptation into the EU.

Liberalized autocracy

I remember Autumn 1984 in Bruges (Belgium) when professor Raymond Rifflet, half amused and half surprised, informed our class: “Le sultan du Maroc vient de déposer une demande d’adhésion à la Communauté Européenne”. (King Hassan’s application has been officially rejected in 1987, which did not dissuade the then crown prince Mohamed from studying at the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels in the late 1980s.) Indeed, in default of full EU membership in the 1980s, Rabat sought a quasi-membership. As the world of the 1990s obviously required liberalization, it sought to adapt by inaugurating a political liberalization process. In order for their regime to survive, king Hassan II, and then his son Mohammed VI set out to manufacture what D. Brumberg dubbed ‘liberalized autocracy’. In particular, Mohammed VI needed to accomplish some visible progress in order to officially present himself in a reassuring light to the international community, hence Regionalization touted as the great political project of his coming reign.

Morocco is the first country in the southern Mediterranean region to be granted advanced status (‘more than association, less than membership’). This quasi-membership allows the regime to benefit both materially and mediatically. It allows it to maximally benefit from EU aid, trade, and mobility, while getting away from the conditionality policy of full EU accession.

The partnership also promotes the regime’s international reputation, amplifying its ‘liberalization’ discourse and its rhetoric of Moroccan ‘exceptionalism’ in the MENA region. Granted on October 13, 2008, the status was like a gift from heaven. What, on November 6, 2008, was officially designated as Advanced Regionalization was thought to capitalize on the opportunity to ‘further advance the Advanced Status’.

Advanced Regionalization

The joint EU-Morocco Advanced Status document invites the parties to a "joint reflection ... with a view to taking a new step towards access to Community financial resources from 2013 onwards, to accompany Morocco in a logic of EU regional and cohesion policy and adoption of new implementation procedures." This prompted a collaborative research programme exploring the possibilities of extending the methodology of structural funds to Morocco. The team, including L. Jaïdi, a previously Advisor to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Economy and Finance, found that a full extension of regional policy in Morocco could have a financial impact amounting to multiplying the current cooperation by 14. Moroccan decision-makers were consequently advised “not to miss the opportunity” of such a “qualitative leap in financial cooperation with Morocco.”

As with the creation of Europe’s Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in the UK, Sweden, or the candidate member-state Turkey, the Moroccan Agences régionales d’exécution de projets (AREPs) may have been expressly set up to anticipate the reception of EU’s regional policies. By regionalizing their countries, member-states de facto do allow EU’s regional policies to have more impact in their territories. It is doubtful, however, that the AREPs will serve Brussels’ objectives of Europeanization whether from inside or outside the EU. One guess is that Rabat will not submit to any acquis communautaire or any EU liberal-democratic constraints.

For Rabat, the challenge will be to access the EU funds and so much more while getting away from any significant EU impact. That is, even if it means faking Europeanization. It would be a different case if Rabat were to Europeanize from ‘outside’ the EU, having no claims whatsoever on the so attractive funds, particularly if it proceeds out of political decency and not out of autocratic benevolence or for the sake of neo-liberal adaptation.

Beyond fake Europeanization?

The European approach has been cautious and willing to praise Moroccan progress rather than sanction its failures. In fact, Morocco has succeeded in silencing the EU on human rights, democracy and self-determination. Experts say “Indicators for Morocco clearly show that the country has not progressed much in its democratic record, this picture has not changed since the ‘Arab Spring’... Despite the failures in Moroccan democratisation processes, as well as a lack of improvement in the Western Sahara dossier... despite its worsening human rights record… the EU has welcomed Moroccan democratic progress and stability, and deepened commercial and trade relationships with the country.” Will Brussels now equally speak out about the human rights and suffering of the Rif population?

The EU declaration that adopted the Advanced Status does “welcome Morocco's intention to strengthen decentralization and promote regional development." Will Brussels now equally speak out about the human rights and suffering of the Rif population? As a student of EU politics I believe there is now a role for Brussels to play in Morocco. I believe the Rif crisis gives it an opportunity to create counterbalances: Alhoceima’s rising bottom-up regionalism against Rabat’s failing top-down regionalization and the severely neglected Rifian non-member region against the spoiled Moroccan non-member state.

Will Brussels put the necessary pressure on the Moroccan regime and its European protectors; the French and Spanish former colonial powers? So far it did not instrumentalize trade and the access to the internal European market, nor did it apply any sort of conditionality towards Rabat. It remains to be seen whether, in the event of a Moroccan request, Brussels will simply authorize EU-Morocco cohesion funds and renounce any kind of domestic impact in return. Or whether it will choose to trade the coveted European Structural Funds for the autonomy of the Rif-region.

Flags at last Sunday's demonstration in Rabat. DR. All rights reserved.

About the author

Mohammed Ben Jelloun is a political scientist (Stockholm University) and sociologist (EHESS, Paris). He has contributed to Al-Ahram Weekly, Swans Magazine, and Jouvert - Journal of Postcolonial Studies. Find him on twitter @ibnjelloun


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