Spain and Morocco have vowed to “open a new phase” in their relationship, suspended for a year after Madrid reversed course on the issue of Western Sahara, during a visit to Rabat on Thursday by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. “We agreed to define a sustainable and ambitious roadmap,” Sanchez told reporters, calling the talks a “historic moment.”
Accompanied by Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares, the head of the Spanish government was received in audience by King Mohammed VI, before an “iftar”, breaking the Ramadan fast, was offered in his honor. A sign of the importance of his visit in the eyes of the Moroccans. In a joint statement, the Cherifian sovereign and the head of the Spanish government agreed to “inaugurate an unprecedented phase in the relations between the two countries”.
This normalization was made possible by Madrid’s decision to show its support for the Moroccan autonomy plan for Western Sahara. Spain “recognizes the importance of the Sahara question for Morocco, as well as Morocco’s serious and credible efforts within the framework of the United Nations to find a mutually acceptable solution”, the joint statement notes.
“As such, Spain considers the Moroccan autonomy initiative presented in 2007 as the most serious, realistic and credible basis for the resolution of this dispute,” the document affirms. Hours before landing in Rabat, the socialist prime minister suffered a setback in the Spanish Chamber of Deputies, which condemned the abandonment of Madrid’s “historic” position of neutrality towards the former Spanish colony.
The conflict in the Western Sahara – a vast desert area rich in phosphates and with water full of fish – has for decades pitted Morocco against the Saharawi separatists of the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria. While Rabat favors a status of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, Polisario calls for a referendum on self-determination under the auspices of the United Nations.
If Mr Sanchez rejected any idea of a “turn” on this issue, he alienated his left-wing allies and the right-wing opposition, but also the Polisario and Algiers, Spain’s gas supplier. The Algerian daily L’Expression condemned on Thursday “the dangerous game of Sanchez, which has exacerbated tensions in the region”.
Tensions between Morocco and Algeria
The visit of the Spanish leader, at the invitation of King Mohammed VI, is part “within the framework of a new partnership” between the two neighboring kingdoms, which puts an end to a deep diplomatic crisis. “One of the first objectives will be to restore the circulation of goods and merchandise at the border crossings of Ceuta and Melilla”, Spanish enclaves located on the northern coast of Morocco, said Mr. Sanchez at the end of his short tour. .
Morocco had stopped this cross-border trade, considered smuggling, in 2019. “We will continue with the gradual reopening of border crossings to guarantee an orderly flow of people (…) and goods will also circulate normally”, the Spanish leader promised . “Passenger maritime links between the two countries will be restored immediately and gradually” until the full opening, the statement details.
A high-level meeting between the two governments is to be held before the end of the year to implement the “road map” established in Rabat. Among the “areas of common interest” are the “reactivation” of cooperation on migration and the delimitation of maritime areas on the Atlantic coast. Working groups will be set up to deal with these sensitive files.
Also among the priorities: economic exchange – Spain is Morocco’s leading trading partner -, energy cooperation, especially after Algiers’ closure of the Maghreb-Europe (GME) gas pipeline, but also industrial and cultural cooperation.
For Madrid, the main purpose of restoring relations with Rabat is to secure its “cooperation” in controlling illegal immigration, while Morocco, from where most migrants travel to Spain, has been regularly accused by many observers of using them as a means of pressure .
The Spanish government also hopes that Rabat will tone down its claim to the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. But many analysts warn against the absence of real guarantees obtained by Spain from Morocco.