The EU’s most powerful member can’t signal virtue over Western Sahara while doing business with Rabat.
Relations between Morocco and Germany, its seventh-largest trading partner, have turned acrimonious. The details of the latest diplomatic spat are murky, but so far it’s been reported that Morocco is either suspending ties with the German government or freezing out the German embassy.
Neither side has yet provided clarity on the contretemps.
Morocco was upset last year at being left out of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s guest list for an international conference on the Libyan civil war. Rabat was also outraged by a recent report on German state TV about alleged human rights abuses in Morocco. But the most likely cause for the latest snub is Germany’s stance on the status of Western Sahara, a disputed region along the Atlantic coast southwest of Morocco.
The precipitating event was President Donald Trump’s decision late last year to recognize Morocco’s claim to the mineral-rich region. (It was a reward for Rabat’s diplomatic opening to Israel.) The European Union pushed back on this move, citing a longstanding United Nations consensus that the people of Western Sahara, known as Saharawis, have a right to self-determination. Germany took the lead for the Europeans and raised the matter with the UN Security Council, where it called on the U.S. to “act within the framework of international law.”
No major power has followed Trump in validating the Moroccan claim, but Rabat seems to have decided to single out Germany to display its dissatisfaction. In so doing, it has exposed Europe’s hypocrisy: Members of the EU invoke international law to signal virtue over self-determination for Western Sahara, even as they disregard their own laws to expand economic ties with Morocco.
Rich in phosphates, Western Sahara was a colony of Spain until 1975, when Madrid’s withdrawal was swiftly followed by a joint Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion. The UN has been trying to organize a referendum for the Saharawis, but it has been hampered by the conflict between Morocco and an independent movement led by a group known as the Polisario Front.
Keen to preserve its status as Morocco’s largest trading partner, the EU is happy to look the other way as European companies do business in Western Sahara, especially in phosphates, fishing, and more recently green energy. This, despite several decisions by the European Court of Justice that EU trade deals with Morocco did not apply to Western Sahara, since the consent of the Saharawis had not been obtained. As recently as 2018, the ECJ ruled that an EU-Morocco fishing agreement was only valid “in so far as it is not applicable to Western Sahara and to its adjacent waters.”
The EU response was to dispatch a European Parliament fact-finding mission to “consult” with some Saharawi groups approved by Morocco, and claim that their consent was sufficient to satisfy the standard set by the court. This sleight of hand let the EU claim that the agreements with Morocco allow it to exploit Western Sahara’s resources without implying “any form of recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.”
This may explain why Germany thought it could get away with some cheap virtue-signaling in response to the Trump decision, while a unit of Siemens AG could celebrate a large order of wind turbines “in the South of Morocco” — a euphemism for Western Sahara.
But Rabat is no longer satisfied with such tawdry displays of diplomatic legerdemain. Morocco is taking its Trump card of American endorsement and calling Germany’s bluff. The stakes have changed for the EU as a whole.
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