Sunday, October 01, 2006

Morocco's dream of EU membership.

Morocco's metamorphosis in recent years owes much to its dream of one day joining the European Union. Former King Hassan II made this explicit 20 years ago, though at the time the ambition seemed almost laughable. This had less to do with the fact that Morocco lies in Africa, not Europe, and more to do with its record on human rights and lack of democracy. Today, no formal request for Moroccan membership sits in Brussels, but Prime Minister Driss Jettou is quoted in an interesting article in Newsweek as saying: "We want to be the southern rib of Europe."

For the European Union's part, says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU commissioner for external relations, "We already have a very, very close relationship with Morocco, and we're studying giving them even more advanced status."

Signs of Morocco's European-style openness are everywhere. The current government is the most democratic in the country's history. Next year's elections are expected to produce a popularly elected prime minister for the first time—previously, leaders of government were appointed by the king—and Morocco's notoriously poor human-rights record is getting a makeover. Cases of torture and arbitrary arrest are down dramatically; there are fewer political prisoners. "We see Morocco as a mixed picture—which is a very favorable comment," says Joe Stork, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Earlier this year King Mohammed VI won praise after his groundbreaking Equity and Reconciliation Commission criticized the torture and brutality that were commonplace under his father's 44-year rule. "We are all committed to never, ever again," says Jettou, though it should be noted that the commission declined to name names.

Women's rights are now among the most progressive in the Arab world, with recent reforms to the Sharia-based family law giving women equality within marriage, the right to file for divorce and the ability to pass their citizenship onto their children. The press has unprecedented freedom, with magazines publishing once-censored accounts of the royal family's finances and internationally respected film festivals freely screening controversial work. Attesting to the practical reality of these sweeping changes, prominent Moroccan writer and political dissident Abdelmoumen Diouri returned home after 35 years in European exile last month.

Yesterday, in THE VIEW FROM FEZ, we examined the impacts of mass tourism. The Newsweek article quoted above also has something to say on this.

Not everyone welcomes the influx. Budget airlines such as Europe's RyanAir and Jet4You offer dozens of flights for as little as £60, and recently there's been talk of a Eurostar-like train linking southern Spain to Tangier via a tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar. But critics worry that Morocco will become a touristic North Africa Disneyland, with its own culture submerged in Marbella-style oases and loud British bachelor parties. "I'm worried that Marrakech will be flooded by package groups," says Dyer, who runs a guest house in the city's Kasbah.

Still, the biggest challenges Morocco faces are homegrown. Foremost among them is jobs, says the World Bank's Ahlers. Although unemployment has dropped significantly in recent years, it's still disproportionately high among Morocco's educated urban young. Thirty-five percent of university graduates are jobless—prompting many to seek work abroad. Poverty and social marginalization come next on Ahlers's list. Fifteen percent of the population, some 4.5 million people, lives below the poverty line. Successfully tackling these two problems, says Ahlers, is the only way to improve the quality of life in Morocco, curb illegal immigration and stem the appeal of Islamic extremism.

Even if those problems were indeed resolved, would Europe let Morocco into its club? It's more a pipe dream than a possibility, most experts agree. "Some people would simply find the idea too alien," says a senior Moroccan diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous because of his position. Nevertheless, a decade ago few could imagine Romania and Bulgaria being invited in—yet last week they were. The EU's official consideration of Turkey proves that Morocco's Islamic identity is not an unassailable hurdle either.

Prime Minister Jettou fantasizes about a future where Morocco is a de facto member of the EU, whether or not it wins bona fide membership. "In 10 years, we will be a full-fledged partner in the EU family," he predicts. "When Romano Prodi [the former president of the European Commission] proposed his European Neighborhood Policy in 2001, he meant that we should benefit from all the advantages of the EU—just without the institutions." Thanks to the free-trade agreements now being negotiated in Brussels and Rabat, Morocco will soon take a big step in that direction. According to EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner, Europe also aims to bring Morocco increasingly into the fold on major political discussions too, including immigration, social issues, foreign affairs and terrorism.

This "deepening relationship," as European diplomats put it, is proving to be something of a regional model by illustrating what other North African and Arab countries can hope to gain through EU cooperation. Many of the countries that signed up to the Euro-Med Partnership in Barcelona in 1995—like Algeria, Jordan and Syria—have slowed intended liberalizations and remained outside the new European "neighborhood." Part of the reason, says Erwan Lannon, a member of the Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission in Brussels, is because Europe expected them to reform economically and socially—but without the "golden carrot" of possible EU membership. Morocco's booming economy and improved living standards show that even without the "member" title, there are palpable benefits to linking up with Europe.

It is hoped it will be a two-way street. Moroccan influences are already being felt in European fashion, for instance, with clothing designers discovering kaftans and traditional tribal textiles. "Europeans are fascinated by our culture," says property developer Wafaa Snibla. "Their houses are more Moroccan than mine."



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