At the beginning of the month, the two countries tried to take bilateral relations to a new level in a government meeting. In a summit meeting between Spain and Morocco, where, among other things, dealing with the migration flows to Europe was discussed. The summit took place against the background of clear tensions between Morocco and the EU after the European Parliament issued a recent resolution admonishing the Maghreb country to respect freedom of expression. There are also suspicions that Morocco is involved in the corruption scandal surrounding the EU Parliament, known as Qatargate.
Sánchez, whose Social Democratic party colleagues voted against the resolution in the EU Parliament, wants to reduce bilateral tensions and strengthen relations with the southern neighbor. This was mainly for strategic reasons: One of the “hot issues” between Madrid and Rabat is the issue of migration flows at the Spanish-Moroccan border. At the same time, however, it became clear in government circles in Spain that at least parts of the governing coalition do not want to support Sánchez’s course. His deputy Yolanda Díaz and all other ministers of the coalition partner Podemos rejected the delegation trip. Similar to the right-wing opposition, the concessions made by the head of government towards Rabat went too far. Sánchez had paid a heavy price to repair Mediterranean relations. In order not to upset Rabat before the summit meeting, two weeks ago the members of his socialist PSOE party in the European Parliament rejected the latest resolution, which criticized Morocco more than ever before because of the deterioration in press freedom and allegations of corruption. Relations with Morocco must be based on mutual respect, and that’s something you have to swallow toads for, the socialist party said.
“The summit will be a thermometer, a test of how far relations have normalized,” said a government official in Madrid. If both sides don’t work together, it can have dangerous repercussions in very sensitive areas, such as the fight against Islamist terrorism. Spain and the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco and the Canary Islands would feel the consequences, such as increasing migration flows. In April 2022, the Moroccan king made a rapprochement when he invited Sánchez to Rabat to break the fast and announced a “new stage”. As proof that the partnership is working again, the Spanish government likes to point to the declining number of irregular migrants, which Rabat has repeatedly used as a means of political pressure. At the height of the bilateral crisis over the Western Sahara conflict, the Moroccan authorities allowed more than 8,000 Moroccans to storm into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on May 17, 2021.
Since the reconciliation a year ago, the number of irregular migrants coming to Spain from Morocco has decreased significantly. Compared to 2021, there were 31 percent fewer migrants in the Canary Islands and 21 percent fewer in the western Mediterranean. However, experts point out that migration flows have recently shifted to the route to Bulgaria and Serbia. However, the largest group of irregular migrants in Spain are still Moroccans, and Spain wants them to be deported more quickly. A corresponding order had been issued against the suspected jihadist assassin in Algeciras. It’s not just about Spain. Between 2021 and 2027, Morocco will receive 500 million euros from the EU to curb irregular immigration.
Morocco also reopened its borders with Spain. Ferry and air traffic returned to normal. However, this has more to do with the end of the pandemic, previously Morocco had been sealed off for months. So far, however, little has happened at the border crossings to the Spanish North Africa exclaves. Morocco closed the border to Melilla in 2018, and a new border regime for goods traffic should have been introduced in Ceuta long ago. This is important for Spain, because it would also mean Moroccan recognition that both cities belong to Spain.
In Madrid, people are now wondering whether the rapprochement with Morocco will pay off. Last spring, after more than 40 years, Sánchez practically gave up Spanish neutrality in the dispute over Western Sahara. In a letter he called the Moroccan autonomy plan of 2007 the “most serious, realistic and credible basis for a solution to the conflict”. As an autonomous region, the former Spanish colony would then remain part of Morocco. The North African country has long urged the EU to follow the example of then-US President Donald Trump, who recognized Western Sahara as part of Morocco.
It is the twelfth bilateral summit since 1993, when Spain and Morocco implemented the friendship treaty, which provides for an annual bilateral meeting. The last time such a summit took place was in 2015. Two high-level meetings scheduled for 2020 and 2021 were canceled by Morocco, which, emboldened by US support, pursued more aggressive policies on the Western Sahara conflict. The long break lasted eight years. In Madrid there was talk of a “historic” meeting days before the trip. A good twenty bilateral agreements should be signed at the end of the intergovernmental consultations. In Rabat, the Spanish government wants to use a new mechanism to lay the foundations to ensure that the partnership on the western Mediterranean no longer cools down dangerously with almost reliable regularity.
Both sides also came closer economically. Spain is Morocco’s most important trading partner. Spanish exports rose 12 percent to a record high of more than 10 billion euros. But the increase was accompanied by a severe setback in Algeria, Spain’s most important supplier of natural gas to date. Algeria, the protector of the Polisario liberation front fighting for independent Western Sahara, was outraged by the Spanish prime minister’s rapprochement with regional rival Morocco; both Maghreb countries have been waging a cold war against each other for a long time.
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