EU's Moroccan diplomacy to be its first foreign policy gambit for 2023

Visit to neighbour demonstrates migration, energy and Ukraine features heavily on European agenda

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Jordan in one of his last engagements of 2022. AFP
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The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, is due to begin 2023 with a visit to Morocco, and it will not only be to congratulate Africa’s first World Cup semi-finalists.

Morocco is a common departure point for migrants to Europe, some of them travelling to Spain by jet ski, and the EU wants to strengthen joint police action while also opening up legal routes.

It is also a potential partner in energy trading between Europe and Africa, a region that has taken on greater significance as the EU tries to cut out Russian fossil fuels for good.

But there are fences to mend, particularly after Mr Borrell described Europe as a garden and the outside world as a jungle, causing an outcry for which he has apologised — in part.

Then there is the question of rallying the world to the EU’s side on the dominating issue of Ukraine. Like many African countries, Morocco has called for peace in Ukraine while not burning bridges with Russia.

The incoming Swedish EU presidency has promised to show Africa that Europe is a valuable strategic partner on issues including migration, development, trade, security and climate change.

In short, during the trip, Mr Borrell will face many of the issues set to dominate the EU’s foreign policy agenda in 2023.

Mr Borrell has long advocated a more potent EU foreign policy and the war in Ukraine has given him his opening — if he can avoid putting his foot in it again.

A group of migrants rest in a Spanish port after being rescued by coastguards. EPA

Ukraine and the EU’s alliances

Like other countries, Morocco has been affected by Ukraine's diminished food exports and Brussels has a role to play in keeping Ukrainian supplies flowing, not least via the Black Sea grain initiative.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has an open invitation to visit Brussels in 2023, officials say, after he recently visited the White House in his first known overseas trip since the war began.

He will find a city in a different mood from his last visit in December 2021, when many still favoured dialogue with Russia and Ukraine’s EU candidacy was a distant pipe dream.

Nobody knows how the war will end but the EU will be under pressure to reward Ukraine’s struggle by making its membership process as swift as possible.

Another EU mission is to deny Russia allies by deepening Europe’s ties with Africa and the Mediterranean, shoring up its own south-eastern neighbourhood and keeping a foot in China’s camp.

But none of this is easy, especially as sabres are rattled in a Balkan dispute involving Kremlin-backed Serbia and African countries recover from a year of inflated food prices linked to the war.

Morocco’s economy suffered from rising food and energy prices while domestic cereal production dropped, according to the World Bank.

By Germany’s admission, Russia attempting to win African friends by spinning the narrative and blaming western sanctions for the food crisis had not been expected.

“Communication is our battlefield. We fight in communication,” Mr Borrell recently said in a combative speech to EU diplomatic staff.

African Union chairman Macky Sall, left, was courted by both the EU and the Kremlin in 2022. AP

Energy

2022 was the year Europe went shopping for energy around the world to replace the imports cut off by Russia.

Brussels has its eye on increased gas imports from Algeria, with transit countries Spain and Portugal keen to increase connections to the rest of Europe.

A recent report by the International Energy Agency said Algeria, Angola, Egypt and Nigeria could have provided more gas in 2022 but for methane leaks.

“Most of the identified potential that could be exploited in the near term to bring additional gas to Europe lies in Algeria and Egypt,” the agency said.

But no supplier is perfect and the European Commission has faced questions over Algeria’s reluctance to export gas via Morocco.

If Algeria can play games with energy during a dispute with Morocco, one member of the European Parliament asked, is Europe not vulnerable too?

The EU and Morocco are meanwhile discussing a hydrogen partnership to follow one announced with Egypt at Cop27.

Germany has southern Africa’s wind and sunshine in its sights, although its relations with Namibia are marred by a violent colonial history.

European households and industry need to replace gas that was cut off by Russia. AP

Migration

Migration problems mounted across Europe in 2022 and some of them could be politically problematic in the new year.

Italy’s harder line on migration under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni raises the prospect of more asylum seekers travelling to Spain, as happened in similar circumstances in 2018.

EU border guards plan to deepen co-operation with North Africa, where dozens of people were killed in a June stampede at the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

At the same time, the EU wants to open up legal migration routes in so-called talent partnerships being drawn up with Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.

Sweden wants to make progress on a new EU asylum pact but negotiations have already outlasted several council presidencies.

Martin Hofmann of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development said there was no breakthrough yet between southern, northern and eastern states on how to share the asylum burden.

“It remains to be seen if such a breakthrough will happen in 2023 or at least a more modest agreement on a ‘mini pact’ can be achieved,” he said.

Updated: December 30, 2022, 7:48 AM