Morocco seeks to strengthen its bilateral relations with the EU during France's rotating presidency

The Alaouite Kingdom will press in European capitals for the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and hopes for the support of Paris
Emmanuel Macron y Mohamed VI

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   The King of Morocco, Mohamed VI, receives French President Emmanuel Macron in Rabat

On 1 January France took over the rotating presidency of the European Union for the next six months. That is the deadline Paris has to undertake the reforms presented by the current occupant of the Elysée Palace, Emmanuel Macron, whose plans include strengthening Europe's borders and forging a new alliance with Africa. An agenda for which he will need the backing of countries such as Morocco, which aims to achieve joint recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Rabat hopes that the mandate from Paris, one of its main strategic allies, will serve to bring the Alawi Kingdom and the EU-27 closer together, with an emphasis on bilateral relations with Spain and Germany. Morocco's dialogue with both countries has been affected in recent months by diplomatic disputes over the Western Sahara issue, where the Spanish and German positions are at odds with Moroccan interests. A problem for which they are now counting on the trump card of French leadership of the European Union.

Morocco wants Madrid and Berlin to follow in Washington's footsteps and recognise Moroccan sovereignty in the region, as well as its proposal for autonomy for Western Sahara as part of the Kingdom. A roadmap that has been supported by France for decades. However, this objective seems complicated given the current state of the conflict, marked by the low-intensity war that has been raging in the region since November 2020 and Algeria's support for the Polisario Front.

Emmanuel Macron
REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN -  File photo French President Emmanuel Macron participates in a working session with the leaders of the West African G5 Sahel countries during the G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott (Mauritania) on 30 June 2020

Macron's presidency has been characterised by a two-party game with Morocco and Algeria, former French colonies that are now vying for leadership of the Maghreb. The French leader has prioritised his agenda of reconciliation with Algeria, with some concessions related to historical memory. However, he has not been exempt from diplomatic disputes with Algiers. Although he has also strengthened ties with Rabat through the opening of two headquarters of La République En Marche, his political platform, in the cities of Agadir and Dakhla, the latter located in Western Sahara.

Macron has not been the partner Morocco had hoped for, but the Alawi kingdom does not rule out France promoting its plans for the region in the next six months. The US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was a response to the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel and the US's intention to strengthen security in the Sahel, a hotspot of terrorist threats that has been part of France's external action in recent years.

This, coupled with Macron's interest in strengthening EU sovereignty during his presidency, gives cause for optimism for Moroccan diplomacy. Plans to strengthen European sovereignty would be linked to issues of security, border protection and migration control. These are areas in which Morocco has played and expects to play an essential role for EU stability, and which will be the axis of action Rabat will use to see its interests fulfilled. Although there are obstacles in the way.

The main stumbling block that will mark France's EU mandate is the presidential elections scheduled for April. Two months before handing over European leadership, Macron will face elections that will decide his continuity for another five years. The former economy minister during the presidency of the socialist François Hollande is playing for his re-election in a context marked by growing polarisation and the emergence of two names that have upset all the polls, those of Éric Zemmour and Valérie Pécresse.

Puesto fronterizo Marruecos
AFP/FADEL SENNA  -   Border crossing point between Morocco and Mauritania at Guerguerat in Western Sahara on 24 November 2020

The far-right polemicist and the new candidate of 'Lés Republicains', the traditional right, have gained weight in the polls and could challenge him for the presidency in a hypothetical second round. Macron has not yet announced his candidacy, but he continues to lead in the polls and will use the new candidates to fragment the right-wing vote. What is clear is that the current president's ambition will push him to run for re-election with two objectives: to take over the leadership of the EU after Angela Merkel's departure and to implement his reforms.

The other stumbling block lies in Morocco's estrangement from Spain and Germany. Neither country recognises Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara or approves of its proposal for the region. This led Rabat to suspend bilateral relations with Madrid and Berlin almost a year ago. The arrival of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the new approach of the Teutonic foreign ministry, which defined Morocco's plan for the Sahara as "an important contribution", have satisfied the Alawite kingdom.

In the case of Spain, relations have been suspended since the admission of Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali to a hospital in Logroño without the knowledge of the Moroccan authorities. The entry of 10,000 migrants into Ceuta facilitated by Morocco aggravated the crisis and pushed the European Union to close ranks with Spain. A dispute in which France played a mediating role and in which signs of rapprochement can be seen.