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Is Morocco relaxing the control of its border with Spain?

A recent IOM report shows that 100,630 migrants and refugees arrived to Europe by sea in 2018, including 49,013 to Spain, the region’s most dynamic entry point this year, with almost 50 per cent of all 2018 arrivals. Since 2016 there has been a sharp increase in the number of migrants crossing the border between Morocco and Spain. According to IOM and Frontex data, 65,301 migrants arrived to Spain in 2018 against 23,143 in 2017 and 9,990 in 2016. Migrants coming solely from Morocco accounted for 714 in 2016, 4,699 in 2017 and 10,190 until October 2018. This means that between 2016 and 2017 the number of migrants’ crossing the border between Morocco and Spain increased by 558% and more than doubled between 2017 and 2018. We can wonder whether Morocco voluntarily allows the crossing of its border to an increasing number of migrants.

More research is necessary in order to determine the influence of other factors in the rise of migration flows such as the restrictions of the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes or the situation in the Moroccan Rif. However, the increasing number of Moroccans crossing the border makes us wonder whether Morocco is using migration as a bargaining chip in its relations with the EU. This would not be a new phenomenon.

Passengers board a small boat in Moulay Bousselham, MOROCCO

Given that the EU prioritises the control of migration, third countries that cooperate with this control agenda gain a more strategic position to negotiate their own conditions. Such a situation where the third country takes over the bargaining initiative and demands financial and political support in return for cooperation with the EU can be seen as “reversed conditionality”. Syrian neighbouring countries have been using migration as a bargaining chip in their relations with the EU since the outbreak of the migration crisis, Turkey being a blatant example. The use of “reversed conditionality” thus provides third countries with a possibility to put forth their own interests and the ability to counterbalance the disadvantages linked to their cooperation with the EU, leading to more dynamic relations between the EU and a third country than is often pictured.

For the externalisation of migration and asylum reception to work efficiently, Morocco must be willing to cooperate with the EU, which means that good relations with the country must be kept. As such, accepting Morocco’s reversed conditionality ’is the price to pay. Morocco knows that it has a high negotiation power with the EU because of its “gate-keeper” role but also because it is a key trading partner and a country that cooperates on terrorism issues.

Morocco has since long taken the opportunity to modernise its own equipment and benefit from foreign expertise when cooperating with the EU or individual Member States, particularly on border management. In December 2017, the European Commission granted a EUR 35 million budget support programme to Morocco’s migration policies (EUR 35 million). This has been unlocked in a tense climate between the EU and Morocco still resulting from the Polisario ruling. The Court of Justice ruling of 2015 which annulled a Council Decision on trade liberalisation between Morocco and the EU including goods issued from the Western Sahara territory had an important impact on Morocco-EU relations and the consequences are still visible.

In July 2018, the European Commission promised an additional EUR 55 million to Morocco and Tunisia to “improve maritime border management, save lives at sea and fight against smugglers operating in the region”. As a result, Moroccan authorities began removing migrants from the coastal region though without leading to a decrease in the number of migrants crossing the border. The reasons for an increase of migration flows towards Spain is certainly complex but arguing that Morocco is using migrants’ as leverage in its negotiations with the EU, for financial support or more subtle geopolitical interests is a realistic argument.

Author: Dr Fanny Tittel-Mosser

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