RABAT, Morocco — Over a long lunch recently at a French country inn outside the Moroccan capital, a senior government official made an enthusiastic, if somewhat labored, analogy between this North African country and, of all places, Mexico.
Like Mexico, he said, Morocco has hundreds of thousands of emigrants working in the industrial lands to the north, sending money home to their families. Like Mexico, he said, Morocco in winter exports vast quantities of garden vegetables--tomatoes, green peppers, zucchini--to the colder, fresh produce-starved regions of the north.
"Why, in our High Atlas mountain range," he said, suddenly seized by the momentum and logic of his argument, "our people even construct their homes out of adobe, just as they do in the Sierra Madre."
Mexico in the Maghreb? Tangier and Tijuana? To a number of Moroccan officials and European leaders, who see Morocco as an oasis of cheap labor and political moderation on the troubled northern edge of Africa, the comparison is not as far-fetched as it might seem.
Ever since the United States and Mexico, along with Canada, began to forge the incipient North American Free Trade Agreement, providing for the free flow of goods and services among the three partners, the Moroccan government has been itching to conclude the same kind of accord with the 12-nation European Community. Talk in Rabat bristles these days with schemes to adapt the Mexican model for Morocco.
A North African-European preferred trade agreement based on the North American pact would be a dream come true for the Morocco government, which has a burgeoning, predominantly young population of 26 million and an unemployment rate estimated at more than 20%.
Among important benefits, Morocco could hope for the elimination of European agricultural trade restrictions that now keep much of its impressive harvests of fresh vegetables and citrus fruit from penetrating the European continent, except in off seasons.
The Europeans, meanwhile, facing increasing labor costs, recently have begun to think of Morocco as a possible site for labor intensive assembly plants, similar to the maquiladoras along the Mexican border with the United States.
This is especially true for Spain, only eight miles across the Strait of Gibraltar from the Moroccan coast. According to documents provided by the Spanish Embassy, private sector Spanish investments in Morocco increased more than twenty-fold in five years, from $4 million in 1988 to more than $89 million in 1991. Officials said Spanish investments, mainly in the Moroccan mining, agricultural and textile manufacturing sectors, are expected to show another 100% increase when figures are released for 1992.
Until relatively recently, however, mainly because of reported human rights abuses under the 32-year reign of Moroccan King Hassan II, the European countries had been cool to the idea of closer political and economic ties here. As late as January, 1992, the European Parliament vetoed a modest foreign aid package for Morocco, citing reports of alleged mistreatment of political prisoners.
But with politically unstable Algeria wobbling precariously and Islamic fundamentalist movements gaining ground in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, European leaders have begun to look at relatively moderate, relatively stable, relatively prosperous Morocco in a different light.
"After the Gulf War and what happened in Algeria," said a western European diplomat posted here, "we took stock and decided we needed to deepen and broaden support to certain countries, such as Morocco."
Meeting in Brussels in December, the EC's Council of Ministers made an about-face in relations with Morocco, instructing its officials to negotiate what is reported to be one of the broadest agreements on trade and cooperation it has ever drafted with a non-European country.
According to officials involved in the negotiations here, the agreement involves a gradual, 12-year phaseout of all important trade barriers between Europe and Morocco.
Although the agreement is provisionally titled as a "Euro-Maghreb" accord, it is in fact a bilateral agreement between the EC and Morocco alone, excluding the four other Maghreb states (Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Mauritania). The European officials hope that a successful trade and political relationship with Morocco can serve as a model for the other states, providing incentive to pursue a moderate political course and liberal economic policy.
The Europeans--particularly the Mediterranean states of France, Italy and Spain--have a lot to lose if the Maghreb political scene continues to evolve as it has in Algeria, where urban Islamic fundamentalists have launched a bloody guerrilla campaign against the nation's military-backed government.