Interview: Morocco’s outgoing ambassador to the EU talks bilateral relations and development

EPA-EFE/JALAL MORCHIDI

Federica Mogherini, Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (R) and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (L) hold a joint press conference during their meeting at Foreign Ministry building in Rabat, Morocco on 16 January 2019.

Interview with Ahmed Reda Chami


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Ahmed Reda Chami is striking with his directness, pragmatism, and structured way of thinking. During our one-hour sit-down, Ambassador Chami, the Kingdom of Morocco’s outgoing envoy to the European Union, managed to encapsulate more than a millennium of Moroccan history, half-a-century of European-Moroccan relations, and three years of a diplomatic rollercoaster, without repeating himself or coming across as anything but a sharp, passionate, and eloquent interlocutor.

This week marks his last in Brussels and, upon returning to Rabat, he will take on the position of the President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, after being by appointed by King Mohammed VI.

“The relationship between Morocco and the European Union has been put on a slow track for more than two years now,” the Ambassador said at the opening of our talk. He was recalling when on December 21 2015, not long before he took over his position in mid-February of the next year, the European Court of Justice struck down a four-year Liberalisation Agreement on agricultural and fishery products between Morocco and the EU.

The Court’s reasoning behind their decision was that it extended to Western Sahara, or the Southern Provinces, as the Moroccan side prefers to call the territories that have been the main issue of contention between the two partners for decades.

A court battle has been going on for years and, as recently as February 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that subsequent fisheries agreements were “not applicable to Western Sahara and to its adjacent waters.”

“Moroccans might fight on all other issues, but they agree on this one, our sovereignty over the Southern Provinces,” the Ambassador said. “The irony of the fact is that ‘Western Sahara (Southern Provinces)’ is listed as a non-autonomous territory -upon which the court’s ruling is based- because back at the end of 1962, a country wrote to the UN and asked to put it in that list and that country is Morocco.”

Revised forms of both the agricultural and fisheries agreements have now been adopted by the European Parliament. “The new Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA) includes the waters of Western Sahara and aims to take into account the conclusions reached by the EU Court of Justice on this matter,” read the Parliament’s communiqué after the vote last Tuesday.Ambassador Chami can return home with a sense of pride and satisfaction. Reflecting upon his tenure, he talks of “three years of hard work, mainly with the Commission, but also with the Council and the Parliament, to amend the agreement so that it is compliant with the Court’s ruling.”

“The impact of the court ruling was very negative on the relationship and we had to find a solution. The court left the door open to find a solution, but they didn’t clarify the path. We had to work very hard, the Commission and us, to amend the agreements to be compliant with the Court and that has taken a lot of effort from both parties.

This is the first time in our history, that we, Morocco, accepted to have an agreement with a third party, where, basically, the Southern Provinces are explicitly referred to in a different way.

Before that we were talking about Morocco never ‘Western Sahara’, so that is the first thing we have accepted. It is also the first time in our history we have accepted to share information about regions of Morocco with a third party. We shared information about the Southern Provinces. It was also the first time that we asked the regional councils whether they would like to have an international agreement, whether they would like to ask for the consent of the people. And because the European Parliament requested – as part of the agricultural agreement – to put in place a statistical system, we went ahead and did that.

We didn’t stay still in our position, as some people like to claim, and the four points above prove that. We went towards the Commission and they came our way, to make sure that we find this middle spot where we could have an agreement that would be supported by the Council and voted by the Parliament.

That took a lot of negotiations and the art of diplomacy. As someone told me last week, our case demonstrates that, even if we don’t agree, we can reach a result that is beneficial to both parties. Where we disagree is that we say that we are sovereign, and the European Union says that we are not sovereign. We disagree on the political status, but we managed to finally find a solution that allows us to work together and continue the partnership.

I really need to thank the Commission and the different Directorates-General, because they understood what our red lines were. They took into account all of the efforts we had made, and they understood the point where they couldn’t go further. (From our side) We understood that there was a need for a statistical mechanism for the agreement to be approved by the European Parliament, and that is a very rich interaction, very rich negotiations. That is what made this solution strong. Then, the Council; I have to thank the Member States. I can say that nearly all of the Member States, all except one, understood what Morocco’s contribution is and what a positive role Morocco can play. And then the last step, the Parliament, that was the most difficult step.

I had meetings with 323 Members of the European Parliament, explaining to them the issue of the Sahara, both the economic and political sides. The Sahara is far away and they do not understand why the Sahara is important to us. It was really hard work. A lot of work was done at the level of the political groups. The European People’s Party, for example, was very supportive, I also had to talk to the ECR, to ALDE, to the S&D. But, in the end, when I see the result, I am very happy. I would really like to salute the sense of responsibility of these Members of the European Parliament, and I would like to tell them, now that I am returning to Morocco, that it was very important for me to have a positive vote, but it is also important for me to keep the relationship going.”

What lies ahead, now that this chapter has been finalised, I ask. “My successor will be busy for years. The negotiations on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, the services agreement, convergence of norms, we will need to move faster on that. Then, the mobility partnership, especially the readmission and visa facilitation agreements. We only have readmission agreements for illegal migrants with four countries: France, Spain, Italy, and Belgium. The European Commission wants to have it at the level of the entire European Union and we are fine with that, but we will need to move it forward and we haven’t done so in the last two years.

Chami also said crisis management in the Mediterranean and an agreement on Europol and Eurojust that is on the table is of profound importance. The agreement on geographical indication, which has already been initialled, is the real issue when it comes to how Morocco becomes a member of the EU without any voting power. This means ‘everything but the vote’.

I call the status that of an associated partner, ‘everything but the vote’, “The Kingdom of Morocco and the European Union are linked by choice, by geography, by history,” he continues. “To give you a sense of how far that partnership goes, we signed the first trade agreement with the European Economic Community in 1969.”

“Europe and the European Union is Morocco’s choice. We made that choice a long time ago, for many reasons. Geography doesn’t lie, we are 14 km away from Spain, and it creates links, relationships, bounds. Geography is the first element. History also plays a role. Our soldiers fought for the freedom of Europe. They were at Monte Casino (the bloody 1943 battle in central Italy that played a key role in liberating the country from Nazi Germany), they were awarded for their bravery.

After independence, we decided to have an open society, free trade, a market economy. We decided to have a set of values that is compatible with European values – freedom of speech, respect for human rights, rule of law, a multi-party society, strong NGOs, vibrant civil society.

One could argue that we are not at the same stage in certain areas, but Europe started so many years before us. We are catching up and we are catching up fast. We also have a big diaspora – four million – the majority of whom are in Europe, most have dual citizenship.

“Morocco is an important trading partner for the EU: there are 35 billion in total trade activity. EU exports stand at 21 billion and imports at 14 billion. The trade deficit favours Europe as more jobs are created in Europe if you look at trade as a proxy for job creation. When it comes to security, our security services have worked very hard to help the security services of Europe avoid terrorist attacks.

When we come to the question of migration, which is very high on the European agenda, the reason why nothing is happening on the southern frontier is because Morocco is doing the job with Spain.

Even before the 2015 crisis, we have been working very hard to prevent illegal migration. There is a force of 13,000 personnel on our northern border that is helping to protect the southern border of Europe. It is costing us 200 million a year. Before last year, the Commission increased their contribution to our migration efforts – they were giving us a budget of 35 million a year and we have been doing the job, because we believe that that is the right thing to do and we believe in good neighbourly relations with Spain.

Most importantly, we have been fighting religious extremism, together. Only fourteen kilometres from Europe. you have a Muslim country and a King that is the commander of the believers, not just the Muslims. He is a commander of the Muslims, the Christians, and the Jews and his duty is to protect all three.

The King is promoting a moderate Islam, a middle-of-the-road Islam. In Morocco, we have done an immense amount of reform in the religious fields. We have reformed the charter of the ulemas, the knowledgeable, the only body that can issue a fatwa. We have also reformed the training of imams.

In the King Mohammed VI training institute for imams, only 30% of the students are Moroccans, 70% come from African countries, some of them come from European countries. These are the imams that on any given Friday can preach peace and tolerance or hatred and violence. This is important for Europeans. This is important for other Africans that Europe has a relationship with.”

The Ambassador proudly quoted some of the latest figures to describe Morocco’s relationship with the rest of Africa. Morocco is the first indigenous African investor in West Africa and the second African investor in the whole of Africa.

“We are happy to advocate triangular relations between Africa, Europe, and Morocco, where our private sector is present. We could do joint ventures in places where European entrepreneurs might be reluctant to go. We want to bring value to Africa. That’s the bright side. And then there is a dark one – the Arab Maghreb Union, where nothing is happening. It is really a shame.

Intraregional economic activity is 2% of the total economic activity of the region. It is the least integrated region in the world. The closed border between Morocco and Algeria is costing the Moroccan and Algerian economies hundreds of millions of dollars.

We can be very complimentary in that we have phosphates and they have hydrocarbons. We could produce the most competitive fertilisers in the world. A World Bank study found that had we been working together over the last 10 years, both our economies would have been double in size, with 100% growth. Instead, we grew by 32% and they grew by 22%. I am not blaming anyone; it is just a terrible thing. We have been telling Algerians for a long time, “let’s keep aside the Sahara issue and let’s work as neighbours on other topics.”

“We’ve accepted a UN invitation to be part of the discussions. Politically we are involved, we would like to find a solution. We have proposed a solution that will allow every party to have a positive outcome. There must be no winners and there must be no losers, because that will not solve the problem. The solution that we have proposed is an extended autonomy plan.

Those regions will have their own parliament and their own government where the head of the government will be elected by the parliament and later invested by the King, but that will be merely symbolic.

There will have their own tribunal and administration and they will manage their own resources. That is a very courageous plan on our side because other regions might ask for the same status. It can be discussed. It can be amended. We are not saying it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. It must be a win-win. Most importantly, it also gives comfort to Europe and the rest of the world. Aside of the flag, which is symbolic, what does Morocco keep really? The main one is the management of the religious field and that is important for Europe.

We also hold on to the security and defence portfolios. You do not want a territory that is so close to Europe, that is close to the Sahel, which could become a failed state. We also keep our authority over foreign affairs. This solution can save face for everyone and safeguard the unity of the Maghreb. And once that political solution is found, it can be reinforced by a referendum on that solution.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Ambassador Chami strikes a very positive and visionary note, characteristic of a man who has excelled in business -he used to lead Microsoft regional operations-, in politics -he has served as a member of parliament and Minister of Industry, Trade and New Technologies- and now diplomacy.

“In twenty years, I would like to see a Morocco where citizens are well-educated, well-protected, and I am also talking about social security, healthcare. A country where citizens have jobs and they live in harmony with the environment. Open to Western values, open to Europe, open to African migration. We must continue our fight against extremism. I want a country that continues to be at the crossroads, at the junction of civilisations. A country whose citizens do not feel excluded.”

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