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In early 2003, the Bush administration — on the verge of unleashing its war against Iraq — proposed a bilateral free trade agreement to the kingdom of Morocco. Morocco accepted. Talks formally start in early 2003 and ended about a year later. In July 2004, the text was approved by the US Congress. In January 2005, it was similarly approved by the Moroccan parliament. Despite the US and Moroccan governments having opposing views on whether or not the treaty shall apply in Western Sahara, it came into force on 1 January 2006.

The US-Morocco FTA has been a controversial and important one for several reasons.

First, despite its name, the whole initiative has little to do with trade. The main objective of the US was and is a political one: to pull a friendly North African kingdom deeper into its sphere of influence (read: control) and in so doing, create a wedge vis-a-vis the Arab world. The Morocco deal was proudly advertised by Washington as its first step towards a full-blown Middle East Free Trade Agreement. Any such regional deal would clearly pull together the major strands of US policy in the Middle East: to "democratise" governance of Arab countries, open them up to US penetration and eventually neutralise all hostility toward the state of Israel. Morocco is now a willing partner in this process.

Second, the projected social and economic implications of the deal for Morocco were downright dim. A number of studies showed that the impact of the FTA on Morocco would be marginal at best and detrimental — increasing poverty — at worst. A whole range of sensitive issues were on the table: the opening of Morocco’s market to US wheat, rules of origin in the US on Morocco’s textile-related exports, drug prices and so on. While the Moroccan negotiators did secure some temporary safety nets on the wheat and rules of origin threats, the underlying message was that without a significant influx of additional US foreign assistance (aid money), the kingdom would not be able to do good on its new commitments without major social setbacks. In sum, the cost:benefit ratio was way out of kilter.

Third, there was important opposition to the negotiations at home. Various social, political, artistic, farming, scientific and even industrial groups mobilised against a range of problems that the proposed FTA threw open. One was on access to medicines, jeopardised by the treaty’s intellectual property rules. Another was on the loss of cultural pluralism, the impending transfer of control over Moroccan media and cultural sectors to Walt Disney, Voice of America and CNN. Another more general problem was the administration’s unending impermeability to calls for consultation, debate, questioning, listening and participation — whether it came from the streets (protests by AIDS activists and film producers were violently repressed), the Parliament (opposition parties had to organise their own hearings on the draft treaty with NGOs) or the corporate sector (national pharameutical manufacturers were upset that they were excluded from the process). The only people happy about the whole thing, in Morocco, seemed to be the select few in the negotiating team.

After two years under the FTA, the US trade balance with Morocco had skyrocketed from US$85 million in 2005 to nearly $735 million in 2007. More recently, the secretary-general of Morocco’s ministry for industry trade and new technologies said that the deal had not met expectations and that Moroccan exports to the US remained weak, partly because the US had not facilitated entry for some agricultural products..

last update: May 2012

Photo: 16:9clue / CC BY 2.0

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