After a year-long diplomatic standoff, Morocco and Germany agreed on Wednesday (16 February) to resolve “misunderstandings” and resume “close amicable relations,” including over the disputed Western Sahara.
On the eve of a summit between the European Union and the African Union in Brussels, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and his German colleague Annalena Baerbock had a video conference which came after the resumption of friendly ties between the two countries was announced.
According to a joint statement, the two committed to “build on the special quality of bilateral relations in all spheres in the spirit of… mutual respect.”
“They stressed the considerable interest of both sides in close amicable relations,” the statement said, and “agreed to enter into a new dialogue to overcome the misunderstandings that have arisen.”
Baerbock ” “welcomed the return of His Majesty’s ambassador to Berlin” and announced that a new German ambassador would arrive in Rabat “shortly” – the first tangible indicators of the thaw.
Rabat said in March of last year that it was halting communication with the German embassy in the North African monarchy due to “deep misunderstandings” on “issues fundamental for Morocco.”
In May, it announced the recall of its ambassador for consultations, accusing Germany of “hostile acts” that were not described.
Since then, the position of German envoy to Morocco has been empty.
One of the main sources of contention was Germany’s condemnation of former US President Donald Trump’s declaration of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara.
Morocco’s primary economic and trading relationships are Germany and France.
Rabat controls the majority of Western Sahara, which it considers to be its own territory.
Following Spain’s withdrawal from its former territory in 1975, Morocco waged a 15-year battle with the Polisario Front independence organization.
A UN-monitored cease-fire agreement called for a referendum, but Morocco has already rejected any vote that included independence as an option, instead opting for limited autonomy.
In a series of normalisation treaties mediated by the Trump administration, Morocco resumed formal relations with Israel in 2020, while Washington recognized Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The Moroccan-German diplomatic schism began to heal in December, when Rabat hailed Berlin’s new government’s “positive announcements and constructive positions.”
What was behind the dispute between Morocco and Germany
In March 2021, Morocco cut ties with the German embassy and cultural organizations in the North African country, sparking retaliatory measures from Germany.
In the midst of a diplomatic spat between Morocco and Germany over the disputed area of Western Sahara, Spain, which held the desert region as a colony until 1975, Spain has stated that it would seek a UN-mediated resolution last year.
Arancha Gonzalez Laya, Spain’s foreign minister, said Madrid will rely on the United Nations to mediate a deal between the two countries.
“Spain maintains a firm and constant position which is supporting the search for a solution that must be political, fair, durable and mutually acceptable as established by the resolutions of the UN Security Council,” she said in a statement.
“It is not for Spain to promote a concrete solution but to support the efforts of the UN to reach a mutually acceptable solution for the parties.”
Rabat revealed its measures, claiming “deep misunderstandings” on “issues fundamental for Morocco.”
According to some commentators, the actions are an attempt by the North African state to stake a claim to the disputed Western Sahara territory.
The European Court of Justice heard arguments over the Morocco-European Union trade deal, which is being challenged by the Polisario Front, which is fighting for Western Sahara’s independence.
In Rabat, resentment was growing over Germany’s criticism of former US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in January of this year.
Trump defied decades of US diplomatic precedent by recognizing Morocco’s claim to the disputed area in exchange for Rabat normalizing relations with Israel.
Morocco was already feeling spurned by Germany at the time, which had declined to invite Moroccan officials to a conference in Berlin in January 2020 to debate Libya’s future.
“This row with Germany is an attempt by Morocco to pressure the European Union, and in particular Spain as a former colonial power, to adopt their claim over Western Sahara,” Ignacio Cembrero, a Madrid-based journalist and author who has written extensively about Morocco, told the media.
“However, it seems unlikely that the EU will do this for now – at least in public.”
Crisis between Morocco and Germany
Rabat has an excellent relationship with Berlin, which is Morocco’s seventh-largest trading partner and handed the North African country with 1.3 billion euros in loans and grants in 2020.
However, if the judges find in favor of the Polisario Front, the ECJ judgment might spark a new crisis in ties between Rabat and Europe, according to observers.
Moroccan exports from the desert region, according to the Polisario Front, amount to robbery of the territory’s natural resources, which include phosphates, agricultural items, and fish taken in the waters around Western Sahara.
According to the media, Gilles Devers, a lawyer for the Western Saharan independence movement, Polisario is fighting against “Moroccan colonialism.”
Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, told the media that the country will fight back against what he called “legal persecution” and maintain its European alliance.
Cembrero expects that the ECJ decision, which is due later this year, would favor the Polisario Front.
“If the ruling goes in favour of the Polisario Front, Morocco may react. It is unclear how at this moment. The trade with Europe is very important to Morocco and they may extract some revenge if the court rules against them,” he said.
Morocco, according to Isaias Barreada, a Madrid-based Western Sahara researcher, sought to launch a diplomatic issue with Germany since the European country was a member of the United Nations Security Council.
“Europe will not fold in its support for seeking a UN solution. But Germany was on the UN Security Council. This may be why Morocco has chosen to make the point with Berlin. It may be trying to signal that it will not be pushed around,” Barreñada, who teaches international relations at Madrid’s Complutense University, told the media last year.
Economic significance of Western Sahara
Western Sahara is more than just a sliver of sand; it has significant economic significance for Morocco.
According to European Commission estimates, Rabat shipped $524 million worth of fish, tomatoes, and melons from Western Sahara to Europe in 2019.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) found in 2018 that a fishing agreement between the EU and Morocco did not apply to Western Sahara since the Saharawi people’s approval for fishing had not been secured through a referendum.
The European Parliament dispatched a fact-finding team to confer with Saharawi organisations in an attempt to evade the ECJ judgement, but analysts and observers alleged that these groups had been sanctioned by Morocco.
The EU later claimed that this satisfied the ECJ’s mandate for consultation with the Saharawis.
According to the Polisario Front, this allowed Brussels to profit from Western Sahara’s riches without the EU officially acknowledging Moroccan authority over the area.
Morocco has argued for a long time that its claim to Western Sahara is unassailable.
Rabat waged a battle against the Polisario Front from the moment Spain lost sovereignty of the territory in 1975 until 1991.
A truce in 1991 was supposed to be followed by a vote on regional self-determination, but that never happened.
The United Nations has attempted to mediate negotiations on the territory’s future, but while both parties have said that they will sit down to negotiate, no agreement has been achieved. In 2019, the most recent negotiations came to a standstill.
Morocco pushed soldiers into a buffer zone in November to restore the only route connecting Morocco to Mauritania and the rest of Western Africa, escalating military tensions.
With a number of African and Arab governments accepting Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, international support for Morocco’s side in the issue looks to be rising.
Some African and Eastern European countries, however, continue to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was established by Polisario leaders in 1976.
“What is most important for Rabat is maintaining trade rights to Western Sahara and it will not back down on staking its claim,” said Barreñada.