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Europe's African dimension.

FOR YEARS MOROCCO HAS pressed for closer ties with the European Community (EC), promoting itself as a bridge between Europe and Africa and Europe and the Arab/Islamic worlds. Generally, Europe has responded politely but cautiously. Now, however, Rabat's prospects of integrating with the EC are brightening rapidly, and before too long Morocco could be a de facto part of Europe.

Apart from Morocco's non-European location, two factors have in the past hindered the kingdom's drive for closer ties with the EC: the Western Sahara dispute and human rights abuses.

Morocco occupied the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1975, claiming it as part of its historic territory and sparking a protracted and expensive war with guerrillas of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, who want the region's independence. The United Nations has mediated a solution involving a referendum of the Sahara's inhabitants, but Rabat, under no military threat and in firm control of the populated parts of the territory, has been dragging its feet. This has irritated many in Europe, where Polisario commands considerable support.

Morocco's human rights record has been repeatedly documented by bodies such as Amnesty International. Rabat's position is that its prisons house no-one except common criminals. That is patently untrue, and it anyway does not excuse the appalling maltreatment of prisoners. The best that can be said is that the situation has improved over the past year or so.

These considerations have certainly hindered Morocco's European ambitions. In January 1992, for example, the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted to block a $600m aid package for the kingdom, citing the human rights and Western Sahara issues.

Despite the difficulties, however, there are unmistakeable signs that the destinies of Europe and Morocco are intertwined. In 1987 Rabat formally applied for EC membership, but was rebuffed on the grounds that the kingdom is not part of geographical Europe. Now, however, Morocco and the EC are negotiating a free trade agreement which would be signed by the end of the year. Last October, meanwhile, the European Parliament, by a three-quarters majority, finally approved the aid package which it had blocked ten months earlier.

Another pointer came in early December when Morocco's powerful interior minister, Driss Basri, attended a meeting in London of the Trevi Group of Western interior and security ministers. The group linking the United States and 11 West European countries, was formed at a meeting in Rome in 1975 and is named after a fountain in the Italian capital. Of the six states attending the London meeting as observers, Morocco was the only one from the Third World.

For Morocco, a free trade agreement with the EC will involve heavy costs. The abolition of protective tariffs will result in the destruction of an estimated 40% of its industrial base. Rabat calculates, however, that the longer-term benefits will heavily outweigh the short-term costs. In particular, an easing of controls over capital movements should lead to a significant influx of funds from investors seeking to benefit from the kingdom's low wage costs. A possible easing of labour market controls would lead to more Moroccans going to Europe to work, and hence to a rise in their remittances to their families back home. In this context, note the EC's determination to control immigration; and note Mr Basri's presence at the Trevi Group's London meeting.

In addition, Rabat could expect to benefit from far higher levels of bilateral aid from EC member states to help fund badly needed infrastructure projects.

It is the potential political fruits of a free trade accord, however, which explain why Rabat is so ready to suffer the short-term upheavals associated with economic liberalisation. In the words of George Joffe, consulting editor for the Middle East and North Africa with the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit: "Having signed a free trade agreement, Morocco will effectively have tied itself into Europe. It is hard to believe that significant political links will not follow somewhere down the road."

Since the mid-1980s Morocco has made determined efforts to improve relations with Western nations. In 1986 King Hassan held talks with the then Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres, in Morocco, in an effort to salvage the peace initiative in the Middle East, becoming the first Arab head of state to meet an Israeli leader since Anwar Sadat. He also played a prominent role in Arab relations. This mediating role by its Monarch can do Morocco's bid no harm.

In short, Morocco has played its cards with consummate skill. It is not a question of stealth, for both sides know where their actions might lead. Within a few years Morocco could be enjoying virtually all the benefits of EC membership without actually becoming a member.

On Europe's eastern flank, much the same process is under way with Turkey; and who knows how long it might be before Tunisia and, somewhat later, Algeria try to follow suit?
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Title Annotation:Morocco's drive for closer ties with the EC
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:812
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