Mohamed Benhamou: "It is necessary to overcome anything that could damage relations between Morocco and Europe"

Atalayar held an interview with the director of Strategic Studies in order to shed light on the new Euro-Mediterranean policies in a convulsive situation following the breakdown of trade agreements with Morocco and the jihadist threat

PHOTO  -   The Director of the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies, Mohamed Benhamou

The recent annulment by the General Court of the European Union of the fisheries and agricultural agreements with Morocco could have very negative economic, political and diplomatic consequences. Reactions from Europe were swift and Josep Borrell and Naser Bourita announced in a joint declaration that this "equal partnership" is based on "a solid bilateral relationship, based on trust and mutual respect, between the Kingdom of Morocco and the European Union". However, despite "mutual respect", what consequences might both Europe and Morocco be facing in the breakdown of these agreements?

The director of the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies, Mohamed Benhamou, has given an interview to Atalayar in order to get the keys to what the European Court's ruling in favour of the Polisario and the consequent breaking of trade and fishing agreements with the European Union could mean for Europe in economic and political terms.

Furthermore, the recent death of the Daesh leader in the Sahel has shown that the fight against terrorism is stronger than ever. The new terrorist threats, together with the resurgence of Taliban power in Afghanistan, could have consequences that endanger the security and stability not only of the Middle East, but also of Europe. In this regard, the director stressed that, despite these new terrorist intimidations, Spain and Morocco continue to lead anti-terrorist cooperation in "perfect harmony".

What does the European Court's decision to stop agricultural and fisheries trade mean for Morocco?

It is a regrettable decision, and it is a decision that unfortunately has more to do with a political position than with a judgement. It is a decision that has been taken on the basis of political considerations that have nothing to do with the agreements and their purpose. And it is a decision which, unfortunately, shows that there is a lack of knowledge of the dossier and of the legal and political realities of the question of the Moroccan Sahara. So, we see many contradictions and many inconsistencies in this arbitration which, of course, I think lacked a little wisdom and was a ruling that did not take into account many elements.

Spain has more than 90 vessels in the waters of Western Sahara. Do you believe that the withdrawal of the vessels should take place imminently?

The Court decided to maintain the effects of the agreements, so there is a continuity of the agreements that is not in question, so there is no disruption of trade and no effect on the stability of trade relations. What emerges is that the European Court of Justice is not challenging the legality of the agreements, but rather that it considers that the procedure followed was not correct.

Having said that, it does not specify or dictate any form to be followed, so I believe that there will be no withdrawal, the Council of Europe is in disagreement with the Court, which of course implies today a review of the European institutional architecture that needs to be balanced. It should also be pointed out that the Council of Europe is today doing everything it can to move towards the Court of Appeal. Morocco, as well as the European Union, are united against this decision, which will certainly be rectified.

Do you think that Europe could be harmed by the ruling?

Yes, this is a dangerous game that could affect the interests of Europe and the European states and the European taxpayer who finances the court. I think it is high time to clarify the relationship between the institutions, in terms of their powers and competences, to ensure the stability of strategic relations between the partners and also to ensure confidence in the trade relationship. It is a decision that has much more media coverage than anything else, because it is not going to change the reality on the ground and the Union and the Council of Europe will make the necessary corrections to overcome it, but it is clear that this situation must not be repeated. 

It is clear that Morocco and the European Union are going ahead with the agreement because, on the one hand, the court has decided to maintain the effects of the agreements. It also decided that the agreements should continue and specified that the continuity of the agreements is not in doubt, so there is no interruption of trade, no impact on the stability of trade relations. Again, the court does not challenge the legality of the agreements but considers that the procedure followed was not duly respected. I believe that we are now at a stage where the Council of Europe is going to ask the Court of Appeal to give its opinion on what it is going to contribute as an element and as a corrective to this decision. 

What does it mean for Morocco that the European Court has ruled in favour of the Polisario Front?

It is an unfortunate decision because it is based on political elements while it is a judicial body, but what must be made clear is that, contrary to what the Polisario is trying to convey as a message, the Court does not give any recognition to the Polisario.

Polisario has no legal personality, and this is what Europe has argued before the court, and it does not meet the criteria for claiming recognition of its capacity to be a party to an injustice, so Polisario has no legal personality, it can have no standing or representativeness to go before the court. Moreover, the Polisario has relied on a British NGO to file this application, because there is no recognition of this entity, even if there has been an amalgamation by the Court, so I think this is a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation of reality.

It is also a serious interference by the Court in a file that is in the hands of the UN Security Council and what this decision brings is only the possibility for the Polisario, which is in agony, to claim victory for a short period of time, even if in reality there is no victory for the Polisario in Algeria.
Despite the European Court's decision, Morocco and Europe have agreed to extend the agreement. How long can it remain in force?

Morocco will, of course, continue to defend its interests, defend its cause and defend its position. It stands by all its commitments, with a lot of responsibility towards its

European partners, it is a sin and not a sentence what the Court has done, but it is déjà vu because Morocco, like the European Union, have already had this experience in 2015. Everyone knows that such a decision was rectified and swept away. Morocco is very confident in its rights, first of all, and in its positions, and it is also confident in its partners and in the common future that we must preserve. 

On the terrorist front, in view of the latest arrests of jihadists in Morocco, it is clear that Morocco's role in the fight against terrorism is crucial. What is Morocco's role in counterterrorism?

Terrorist activity remains quite dynamic at the moment. We are increasingly witnessing a return to strength of terrorist groups, especially in the Sahel area. We see this with the number of attacks and with the number of terrorist and jihadist groups active in this area and with their ramifications in North Africa and in the Middle East and even as far as Afghanistan.

So, Morocco, through the dismantling of this latest cell and the arrest of the jihadists, realises that its role in the fight against terrorism is paramount, making it a bulwark against the rise of terrorism. We are thus at a stage where Morocco continues to assume its role with responsibility and commitment to its partners and in a fight against terrorism without alibis.

In this sense, Morocco acts as a shield for Europe. How can this EU cooperation be strengthened?

Given the rise and persistence of terrorism, and given the nature of these terrorist organisations, which today act in an extraterritorial and transnational logic, which of course seeks loopholes to strike wherever it can, we face a global enemy.

The response must be global and the enemy we face is a common enemy, so the response must also be a common response. Strengthening cooperation between all countries is important, it is a necessary step to neutralise the mobilisation and mobility of terrorists, it is also a means to avoid leaving safe havens for terrorists to move into. Alongside this, cooperation is important at all levels in terms of intelligence and information exchange. 

In Europe, Morocco has always played an important role, whether at the bilateral or multilateral level. It has always cooperated with commitment and responsibility. We see this with Spain, with which it has developed exemplary cooperation, and with other European countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Great Britain, and other countries whose international cooperation with Morocco is considered one of the pillars of their strategy.

It is therefore necessary today to strengthen this cooperation with the European Union and to overcome certain divisions or situations that, unfortunately, poison relations between Morocco and certain countries and have a negative impact on cooperation, which, of course, leaves opportunities and possibilities for terrorist groups and Jihadists to attack. It is therefore necessary today to consolidate trust between states, strengthen work and cooperation and, of course, overcome anything that could damage relations between Morocco and Europe. 

What is your assessment of Spanish-Moroccan cooperation in the fight against terrorism?

Spanish-Moroccan cooperation in the fight against terrorism is exemplary. Never before have two countries reached the level of cooperation that Morocco and Spain have been able to achieve. It is a cooperation that today stands as a model for other countries in Europe and elsewhere in the fight against terrorism, but also in the fight against transnational crime, and thus in the fight against all forms of emerging threats.
This cooperation, of course, continues to bear fruit, whether in Spain or in Morocco or elsewhere, and is therefore necessary to confront a wave of threats that continues to threaten Morocco, Spain, the Mediterranean and Europe. I believe that between the Moroccan and Spanish security services there is perfect harmony, except, of course, when there are political storm clouds landing on the ground.

Do you think the Afghan conflict has triggered the awakening of the sleeper cells?

I believe that Afghanistan will continue to be a haven for terrorists and jihadists and that Afghanistan will be an area where these extremists will develop further, and I believe that with the arrival of the Taliban and the disruptive context in Afghanistan, terrorism will increase. 

In addition to Daesh, Al-Qaeda or other groups, today there are sleeper cells that are going to wake up and try to reorganise and restructure themselves in order to strike. Therefore, we need more vigilance, more cooperation and more trust between states to deal with this terrorism and these terrorist groups, which are to be found in what is happening in Afghanistan. A strategy to say that they are able to defeat and therefore maintain their terrorist project and keep alive their project of hatred and destruction. 

Do you think Europe is facing a new terrorist threat as a result of this conflict?

Yes, Europe, but not only Europe, I think there is a terrorist threat today because of the Afghan conflict, but also because of what is happening in the Sahel area. This terrorist threat weighs on Europe as it weighs on North Africa and other countries.

We are in a phase where terrorist groups are relying much more on latent cells, on cells that are not easily detectable and also on activists who can commit terrorist acts at any time. We are therefore witnessing an evolution which means that, on the one hand, especially in Afghanistan or Central Asia, or in the Sahara and other parts of Africa, there are terrorist groups that are restructuring themselves, organising themselves and seeking to recruit even more fighters, even though we can see today that they are having difficulty recruiting.

In the Sahel some jihadists during the day have a civilian activity and from time to time they do some things with jihadist groups. Today we no longer have a profile of jihadists, we no longer have a structure or a well-established organisation. We no longer have the possibility of detecting the links between all these motives, but what is certain is that the terrorist threat persists and that Europe, like North Africa and other parts of the world, must be even more vigilant and, above all, cooperate more.