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On Feb. 2, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez traveled to Rabat to meet his Moroccan counterpart, Aziz Akhannouch.
The relationship between Spain and Morocco has been tense in recent years: there are are topics on which the two Mediterranean countries don’t agree. The issues of Western Sahara and the status of the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are the most prominent: in the background, the Moroccan ambitions to manage the migration fluxes in and out of Africa. The three issues are intertwined and act as a political lever for one or the other country, in a game of counterweights that this time has favored Morocco.
Following the meeting, the two countries issued a Joint Declaration, in which both parties expressed their commitment to cementing excellent relations. The meeting between the two politicians bears the olive branch and aims to mark the end of the diplomatic disagreement that began two years ago. Indeed in April 2021, the Sánchez government had allowed Brahim Ghali, leader of the Front Polisario, to enter the country for medical reasons. The Front Polisario is a national liberation movement which for decades has been fighting for the independence of Western Sahara, a territory which is instead occupied and controlled by Morocco. In 2007, Morocco presented a plan to the United Nations to resolve the long-running issue. The proposal was to create an autonomous government of the region for the Saharawi people: this would provide a facade of self-determination, while reinforcing the status quo by maintaining Morocco’s political and military control over the territory. Spain’s move had annoyed Morocco, which in response enforced border control.
Rabat, the gateway of Africa, refuses to recognize Spanish sovereignty over the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which it considers part of its territory. In retaliation for the Spanish maneuver, the Moroccan government had decreased border control over Ceuta and Melilla, favoring an important migratory flow from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Using the migration issue as political leverage proved to be a winning move: Sánchez retraced his steps and endorsed Morocco’s 2007 plan on the Western Sahara issue. Now, this acknowledgment from the Spanish side constitutes an additional piece in the Mediterranean scenario which also plays in Morocco’s favor on the economic side.
The reconciliation between Morocco and Spain has indeed proved fruitful: about 20 economic agreements have been established to support investment in the country. The economic and commercial relations between Morocco and Europe are a flagship for the African monarchy: Euro-Moroccan trade, already consolidated by the agreements of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, leaves the Mediterranean partner with considerable advantages. The EU is Morocco’s largest trade partner, accounting for 56 percent of its goods trade in 2019. 64 percent of Morocco’s exports went to the EU, and 51 percent of Morocco’s imports came from the EU. Morocco is the EU’s biggest trade partner among the Southern Neighborhood countries, with 25 percent of total EU trade in goods with the region. Morocco also represents the main Spanish market in Africa, and the third outside the European Union. Trade between the two Kingdoms grew by 30 percent in 2022. Morocco leverages its position as an exporting country: a large part of the exported resources, especially phosphate and fisheries, come from the occupied territories of Western Sahara. The economic agreements between the EU and Morocco are still solid, even after the Court of Justice of the European Union declared that they violated the rights of the people of Western Sahara.
Rabat, aware of its key role as a link between Europe and Africa, has played its cards and pulled the right strings in the geopolitical chaos of the western Mediterranean.
If the economic dossier is closely intertwined with the geopolitical issues of Western Sahara, the face of Morocco as gatekeeper of Africa assumes even greater relevance. The western Mediterranean route remains one of the most used despite migratory flows from Morocco to Spain having decreased by more than a third since last year’s rapprochement. Both countries have agreed to intensify their cooperation in the field of the fight against irregular migration, border control and the readmission of irregular migrants.
Migration policy can be seen as an innovative tool of Moroccan foreign policy, rather than a response to a public problem or internal concerns. Only Morocco has made an effort to implement significant immigration and asylum reform in the MENA region. As a country of emigration, transit, and destination, the kingdom has announced a significant migration and asylum reform. The new law is to be part of the new strategy in order to better regulate asylum and lessen the issue of human trafficking. By changing its national migration policy, Morocco learns to talk of migration management, becoming a fundamental actor and interlocutor in the international geopolitical chessboards. Morocco rewrites mobility partnerships with EU on its own terms, knowing that its strategic position is a fundamental leverage in the discussion around migration.
The dossier on migration is too strategic to be only defined by unilateral policy and could serve Morocco’s economic and geopolitical interests. Morocco is establishing itself as a counterterrorism ally on immigration issues for the European Union and important member states. Compliance with European demands, such as the border control on Sanchez’s agenda, may include obtaining funding and resources from the EU. As has been demonstrated, it may also entail acknowledging claims to the Western Sahara and economic concessions.
The first summit between Morocco and Spain in eight years is unquestionably encouraging, both for the benefits it can bring to Madrid and Rabat and for the overall direction of EU policy. In fact, the meeting takes place at a time when European nations are working to mend fences with allies in North Africa after the Russian invasion of Ukraine enhanced multifaceted dangers in the Mediterranean.