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Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2011

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.

The UK and Morocco go back a long way, and it is my great pleasure to have this opportunity to discuss the Government’s policy towards one of this country’s greatest friends and allies. Fortunately, unlike France and Spain, Britain has avoided the acquisitive behaviour that so complicates their history with Morocco, with a single, brief exception in 17th-century Tangier. Our amicable relationship has been enhanced recently by the appointment of King Mohammed VI’s esteemed and able cousin, Her Highness Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, as ambassador to London.

In 2013 arises an opportunity to cement the relationship further, with the 800th anniversary of the first official contact between the two countries. In 1213, King John sent an emissary to petition support from Sultan Mohammed Ennassir. It would be a great pity if that opportunity were lost, and I am interested to hear what proposals the Government have to celebrate the occasion or, if they have none, whether they will give the matter some serious thought.

On Friday, Morocco goes to the polls, and they will be keenly watched in the South West Wiltshire constituency, a division with more Moroccan residents than any other outside the M25. The election will cement the “new constitution project” for a citizen-based monarchy, accepted in a referendum with a remarkably high turnout on 1 July. A polling station for that was set up in Trowbridge in my constituency, which I had the great pleasure of visiting. The new Parliament will have the task of giving statutory expression to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. The way it conducts itself will be important in facing down the critics, the more considered of whom cite scope for interpretation of caveats to the clauses in the new constitution, the reliance of the new constitution’s articles on what are called organic laws, which have not yet been written, and recourse to special commissions chaired by the King to determine much of the change anticipated.

It is important to set the context for this year’s historic referendum and general election. Morocco has, to a large extent, stood apart from the violence and disorder of the Arab Spring. The present King, Mohammed VI, has ruled for 12 years and is generally credited with liberalising his country and shifting it towards a constitutional democracy within the historic and religious constraints of a society that remains deeply conservative and traditional. His regime contrasts sharply with that of his father, Hassan II, who presided over the post-colonial period during what became known unflatteringly as the years of lead. It is significant that King Mohammed, early in his reign, pardoned thousands of prisoners, set up an arbitration body to compensate families of opposition leaders who had disappeared and caused credible elections to take place. There has been a marked improvement in the position of women, with a quota for the Parliament that will be the envy of many in this House. The rights of women have been enhanced by the King’s family law, and he has insisted that the Berber language should be taught in primary schools, a measure that complements his move towards regional autonomy in Morocco, including western Sahara.

In June, King Mohammed laid out his proposals for the referendum. The King surrendered his right to appoint a Prime Minister and uprated the status of the premier to Head of Government, with the consequent right to dissolve Parliament. The King lost the right to appoint regional leaders. The new constitution endorsed by the referendum explicitly upholds human rights, promises religious freedom, prohibits torture, backs freedom of thought, opinion and expression, permits free assembly and peaceful demonstration, and should facilitate a more free press. It calls for gender equality, and gives the minority Berber language official status.

There is an interesting version of the separation of Church and state in the differentiation of the powers of the King as Head of State and as commander of the faithful, which may be of interest to those in the UK who are concerned about the established Church, and the Monarch as supreme governor. The proposals overhaul the judiciary, and even offer an ombudsman service, but reaction in the west has been mixed, with The Economist leading under the mean-spirited headline, “A very small step”. However, it is, without doubt, a step in the right direction, and one that I am sure the Minister will support.

Perhaps because of the peaceful evolutionary change that is under way in Morocco, the country has avoided much of the mayhem seen elsewhere in north Africa. It is true that there were significant protests in Moroccan cities early this year, but as far as we can tell, they were less intent on regime change than in other countries involved in the Arab Spring. The relatively few protestors who took to the streets of Rabat, Tangier and Casablanca in the run-up to the general election focused on the Makzhen or palace elite. That is said to represent a road block to reform, which organisations such as the Brookings Institution maintain is happening too slowly. If there is a criticism of what is going on in Morocco at the moment, it usually involves the rate of change, rather than the direction of travel.

As for the protests organised by the 20 February organisation and so on, it is difficult to know what significance to assign to them, given that Morocco is caught in a pincer between economically inspired unrest in Europe and the Arab Spring in north Africa and the middle east. It is also reasonable to point out that stridency among émigrés, which is generally a barometer for unrest in troubled countries, has certainly not been experienced in respect of Morocco. I get the feeling from my Moroccan community, many members of which return regularly to Morocco and certainly have family there, and through the British Moroccan association to the Moroccan Community Association, whose meetings on the parliamentary estate I attend, that the reforms that are under way are welcomed and appropriate.

In recent years, there has been significant security and judicial co-operation between Morocco and the UK. Clearly, the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel present a threat to the west, and desertification makes it more likely that populations will move north. The Government of Morocco give every indication of appreciating the threat that that poses to peace and concord within their borders, and the danger of being seen as a repository of criminality threatening southern Europe.

In the summer, the Foreign Secretary and the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Mr Fassi Fihri, signed a memorandum of understanding on deportation on the grounds of terrorism and national security, but the detail was left out. Can the Minister explain the practical consequences of the memorandum now, how he sees it developing, and within what time scale?

It has been reported that the streams of intelligence from north Africa have reduced in recent years and months, probably as a result of political developments, the disappearance of old lines of communications with, thankfully, vanishing regimes and general chaos in the region. If so, it means that Morocco’s significance has increased. Indeed, attacks in Casablanca and Marrakesh and the involvement of Moroccan nationals in the 2004 Madrid bombings notwithstanding, terrorist activity in and linked to Morocco has been limited, and commentators have suggested that that is due in part to effective intelligence gathering and co-operation with western agencies.

I appreciate that the Minister cannot be specific in this forum, but can he comment on the development of intelligence co-operation with Morocco? As Tehran continues to act as the bully boy of the middle east, what significance does he attach to Moroccan good sense in cutting off diplomatic relations with the monstrous Iranian regime in 2009 after it started to spread its fundamentalism to the peaceful and moderate Sunni kingdom?

There are major threats to Morocco from challenging frontier security issues, and difficult-to-regulate migration. The barely governed space of southern Algeria, Mali and Niger, and vast area of the western Sahara offers a potential nest to fundamentalist terror organisations, including al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. To what extent does the Minister believe that Morocco’s ability to engage in intelligence and security has been degraded by the Binyam Mohamed episode?

Although the UK does not provide direct bilateral aid to the western Saharan people, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid office certainly does. The UK provides direct assistance to help to promote stability and to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and I was informed before the election that the Government were working on the EU to direct EU stability instrument funding to help to address the security situation. Can the Minister offer a progress report? What progress has been made in establishing a new embassy in Mali and political offices in Mauritania, as heralded in January 2010 by the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office?

The previous Government showed interest in the Moroccan imam training scheme in marginalising the religious fundamentalism that is the cause of so much trouble elsewhere. The scheme was exploring whether UK imams might train in Morocco, and I wonder whether there has been any progress on that.

In 2010, the House was informed that bilateral defence activity was “modest but important”, and the most significant seems to be Exercise Jebel Sahara, which is run regularly in the region of Marrakesh. Can the Minister say how he anticipates bilateral defence activity being developed, and for what purpose?

Helped by Morocco’s association agreement with the EU, the EU accounts for 60% of Morocco’s exports, 80% of tourism receipts and most of its large income from foreign remittances. Given the strong prospect of a double-dip recession in the eurozone, depression in southern Europe and the country’s wide and growing trade deficit, it seems likely that the pressures on Morocco from the young, educated unemployed will increase with every chance of an escalation in civil unrest and potential for terrorists to feed off poverty and grievance. Morocco is a relatively small trading partner for the UK, in contrast with, for example, France, but what measures are being taken to improve trade in goods and services between the two countries, and how does the Minister believe that might help to avoid the turmoil elsewhere in the region with its attendant security threats?

In January, I had an Adjournment debate on the western Sahara, when the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), responded. Can the Minister provide an update on the Government’s contribution to steering this central issue for sub-regional stability to a safe place? What has Baroness Ashton and the portentously named EU External Action Service been up to? If we must have it, it might as well do something useful in the EU’s near abroad, which the western Sahara most certainly is.

Voting arrangements for the Moroccan elections this Friday are based on Moroccan ancestry, rather than residency or citizenship. That means that a large Moroccan ex-pat community is potentially involved, although the arrangements are rather more complex than for the referendum held in the summer. There is certainly confusion at the bewildering array of parties on offer, and I regret that the very good polling stations that we saw for the referendum will not be available again on Friday. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister will take a keen interest in the outcome and in the Government who emerge, who will be headed for the first time by a Prime Minister who can be said to be truly head of the Government.

In a similar vein, the Minister will have noted that at the Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly at Berne in October the Speaker of the Moroccan House of Representatives, Mr Abdelwahed Radi, was elected president. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this important totemic step as Morocco moves towards a commendable new settlement based on constitutional democracy?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing this debate and thank him for the work that he does as chairman of the all-party group. I am aware of the exemplary way in which he represents a large part of the Moroccan diaspora who are based in Trowbridge, where, historically, they worked in the food processing industry. I want to set out our approach to the internal and regional issues pertinent to Morocco before dealing with the key features of our bilateral relationship.

Morocco’s determination to implement political reforms predates the Arab Spring. Indeed, the new constitution takes steps to increase the power of Parliament, advance gender equality and protect minority rights. My hon. Friend mentioned that the king himself has been very much involved with the issue of gender equality, which is to be applauded. We welcome Morocco’s decision to ratify the optional protocol on the convention against torture, which shows seriousness in this regard. The parliamentary elections on Friday are the first to occur under the new constitution and have the potential to herald a new era in Moroccan politics.

The UK strongly supports the ongoing process of constitutional reform and looks forward to observing free and fair elections in Morocco. There is generally a good level of freedom of expression in Morocco, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there are still some restrictions, particularly in relation to criticism of the monarchy, Islam and Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. A number of high profile cases are a reminder that there is still more that the Moroccan authorities can do in that respect.

Our embassy maintains good, close working relationships with human rights institutions and civil society activists. It has run several human rights-related projects in recent years, including on penal reform and alternatives to the death penalty, and on supporting human rights institutions. Coupled with the reforms already being carried out, the recent constitutional change and Friday’s election reinforces Morocco's reputation as a leader of change in the region.

While setting an example in the region on political reform, Morocco has a major role to play in regional stability. At a time of great historic change in the Maghreb region, the need for strengthened political, economic and security relationships across the region appears all the more pressing. An improved relationship between Algeria and Morocco is vital. I therefore warmly welcome the news that the Moroccan and Algerian Foreign Ministers met in Rabat last week; it was the first meeting at this level for 14 years. According to some experts, improved trade between Maghreb countries could double the impact of any concessions made by the European Union and United States. Enhanced regional co-operation could also contribute to a more favourable dynamic for the resolution of the status of Western Sahara.

I must also acknowledge the role played by Morocco in reaching out across the Maghreb to the wider region. In relation to Syria, Morocco did not hesitate to join the calls of the international community in condemning the use of violence against civilians. Its support for political change in Libya and high-level engagement at the Libya contact group formed an important element of Arab support for the National Transitional Council.

My hon. Friend mentioned Western Sahara. Morocco has demonstrated its ability to play a constructive role in the region, and we encourage Morocco to continue its efforts, particularly with regard to Western Sahara. We fully support the efforts led by the UN to encourage all parties to reach a mutually acceptable solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. The kidnapping of European aid workers from the Tindouf camps is of grave concern and it raises questions about the safety of those in the Polisario-controlled camps, as well as the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb across the Sahel. This incident also underlines the need to find a solution to secure the futures of the refugee population.

My hon. Friend asked about the EU’s External Action Service. I assure him that we are in close discussions with the service. I agree with him that it is important that the service does not try to replicate what members of the EU are doing, but that it works in a symbiotic, complementary way and tries to add value to the work that they are doing rather than cutting across initiatives and diplomacy that are already in place.

I am pleased to report to the House that the UK is engaged in an open dialogue with Morocco and other parties to the frozen conflict. We are committed to working with the international community to try to find a successful resolution. We cannot forget the humanitarian tragedy caused by the continued stalemate between the parties, in some cases separating family members for more than 35 years. Morocco has made commitments to providing safeguards for the human rights of all those living in the disputed territory, as noted in the UN Security Council resolution 1979 in April. Our approach to the annual renewal of the mandate for the UN peacekeeping forces in Western Sahara remains under consideration. I encourage Morocco to demonstrate firm progress against those commitments well in advance of the Security Council discussions next April.

I hope that Morocco’s recent election to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council will provide a special impetus in this regard. We look forward to working with Morocco to address all threats to international peace and security during its two-year tenure. We consider Morocco to be a close ally on complex regional matters, and we will be seeking its expertise and experience.

I will say a word or two about our bilateral relationship, which we regard as very important. Since Morocco’s independence in 1956, UK-Morocco relations have grown steadily in importance. Today, nearly 400,000 British holidaymakers visit Morocco every year, and there is a renewed strength and impetus to the political relationship. The range and depth of our bilateral contacts reflects this. As a sign of our joint wish to deepen co-operation, the Foreign Secretary and the Moroccan Foreign Minister agreed a bilateral partnership agenda in March, setting out a number of key areas for closer working. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary made his first official visit to Morocco last month, demonstrating the importance that our Government place on this relationship.

In addition, the successful official visit of Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall last April signifies the strong civil society links between our countries. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is involved in parliamentary exchange programmes, and the British Council has established links between 60 Moroccan and 40 British schools through the Connecting Classrooms project.

I will say a quick word about the Arab Partnership, one of the most pertinent areas of our Government’s co-operation. This initiative leads the UK’s strategic approach to the Arab Spring, working with those in the region to develop more open societies underpinned by vibrant economies. We are committed to supporting those aspirations. In Morocco, our focus is on political participation and transparency—areas that Moroccans themselves identified as key to the country’s progress. Our programme, worth approximately £500,000, is providing targeted, rapid assistance in areas where the UK can add best value.

The Arab Partnership also works to leverage funding and support through multilateral organisations, particularly the G8 and EU, to provide a strengthened offer of support to the region. Morocco’s commitment to reform has long been recognised by the EU. Indeed, it was the first near neighbour to achieve an association agreement in 2000 and an action plan for advanced status in 2008. As far as the EU’s External Action Service is concerned, we will be working alongside it to make sure that this action plan for advanced status is moved into the next phase. The UK supports greater conditionality, both positive and negative, in the EU’s relations with all its southern neighbourhood partners. As we move forward, this is an opportunity for Morocco to demonstrate, and be rewarded for, its internal reform efforts.

My hon. Friend mentioned judicial co-operation. The Arab Spring produced new opportunities for greater partnership. We have been working with Morocco consistently over a number of years and are reaping the benefits of a reinvigorated bilateral relationship. He mentioned the memorandum of understanding with Morocco concerning the provision of assurances in respect of people subject to deportation on grounds of national security. This MOU forms one component of a wider judicial package, and it will continue to be developed and moved forward. This will pave the way for greater co-ordination to ensure the protection of citizens. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are taking this very seriously indeed. We are pleased that the Foreign Ministers were able to sign the MOU in September. The final exchange of letters is ongoing but near completion, and obviously this forms part of a much wider judicial package to increase security and co-operation between our two countries.

Let me say something about security and co-operation. As well as harmonising our judicial systems, we have been directly co-operating with Morocco on terrorism and narcotics. The bombing of the Argana restaurant in Marrakesh last April killed 17 people, including one British national, and demonstrated the shared threat that our countries face from terrorism. We have a good record of co-operating with Morocco, and the Moroccan police investigating that incident conducted their inquiries in line with post-bomb blast management provided by the UK—a good example of close and constructive co-operation between our two countries. We also sent a special police unit to aid the investigation, and we are now looking at technical work to share expertise in the use of CCTV. I hope that has answered my hon. Friend’s question about security and co-operation, and we will write to him on any additional points that may be relevant.

The security of Morocco’s borders is of direct concern to the UK given the flow of illegal drugs and migration from west Africa into Europe. Many of the drugs that flow from Latin America into Europe come via west African countries and up through north Africa. The Moroccan authorities have publicly committed themselves to tackling the cocaine trade, and they have requested assistance from the UK and Spain to combat trafficking and terrorism. Such support is part of our enhanced security and intelligence co-operation, and we will give it added impetus in the immediate future.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have placed a great priority on improving commercial links with many countries, and no country is too small to prevent us from working tirelessly to increase bilateral trade. The UK will solve its economic problems only through the export-led recovery that the Prime Minister and Chancellor have talked so much about.

We are, therefore, looking to exploit future opportunities. Morocco is an emerging economy and we are focused on building up our bilateral trade. I am pleased that International Power has recently secured energy contracts to operate a wind farm and coal-fired power stations, and I hope that other British business will follow suit. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that UK Trade & Investment will take an outwards trade delegation to Morocco in January, and we also hope to restructure the Moroccan British Business Council and increase its effectiveness as a vehicle for creating vibrant business opportunities. We see Morocco as an increasingly attractive investment for UK companies—four UK law firms have established offices in Casablanca this year alone—and Her Majesty’s Government can play a role in encouraging that trend.

As my hon. Friend said, Morocco is probably one of the most advanced countries in north Africa in terms of democratic reform, and the way to embed such reform is through trade and the creation of prosperity and wealth. The more ties based on trade that countries such as Morocco have, the more likely it is that the rule of law will prevail in the future and good governance will remain.

I hope that I have responded to most of my hon. Friend’s points, and that he agrees that the UK and Morocco now have the opportunity to move forward together in a reinvigorated bilateral relationship. We must look at other ways of underpinning that already excellent relationship, and opportunities will flow from working together on the UN Security Council. As the Minister responsible for the UN, I have seen a number of small countries join the Security Council as temporary rotating members. If we engage with those countries at an early stage, we can work with them on a constructive basis—I refer in particular to countries such as Gabon, Colombia and Lebanon that have sat on the Security Council over the past year. We already had a fairly good relationship with those countries, but it is now even better. Working with them at a time of so many global challenges meant that we had to sit down together a great deal, look at our mutual interests and work together on many different international initiatives.

During his recent visit to Morocco, the Foreign Secretary spent time discussing the challenges and opportunities posed by Friday’s elections at this exciting time with representatives from a range of political parties. The UK will continue to support Morocco and its people as they continue their journey of evolutionary political reform.