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What does Spain’s President, Pedro Sánchez’s visit to Morocco signify?

What does Spain’s President, Pedro Sánchez’s visit to Morocco signify?

Spain’s President of the Government Pedro Sánchez visited Rabat on February 21 where he held talks with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. This was Sánchez’s fifth overall trip to Morocco since taking office in 2018.

Sánchez’s recent visit assumes importance as it is his third since 2022. It is a part of the continuing efforts from Madrid to court Rabat. These efforts have intensified since the past two years as Spain has repeatedly emphasized its position on Western Sahara which is at the heart of the geopolitical matrix surrounding Spain’s relations with Morocco.

On March 18, 2022, Spain supported Morocco over the issue of Western Sahara. In a letter to King Mohammed VI, Sánchez termed the Autonomy Plan of 2007 presented Morocco as the most serious, realistic and credible for resolving the dispute over Western Sahara. Sánchez’s decision to support Morocco marked a shift in Spain’s decades-long position on this issue. Spain’s position until 2022 was to support a UN-sponsored referendum to settle the territory’s decolonization.

What is the dispute over Western Sahara?

It is pertinent to understand briefly the issue of Western Sahara which is it at the centre of the Spain-Morocco relations.

Map of Western Sahara. Source: www.minurso.unmissions.org

Western Sahara is located in the northwestern corner of Africa. It is bordered by Morocco in the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mauritania in the east and south and the Atlantic Ocean in the west and northwest. The United Nations categorizes Western Sahara as a Non-Self Governing Territory. 

Western Sahara was ruled by Spain until 1975. After Spain left, Morocco and Mauritania divided the territory of Western Sahara among themselves. Polisario Front, a pro-independence outfit backed by Algeria, launched an armed struggle to proclaim Western Sahara as Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1979 after a series of defeats at the hands of Polisario Front. In the following years, Morocco consolidated its control over this region with de facto control over 80% of the territory while the Polisario Front controlled the remaining 20%.

What explains Spain’s change of stance over Western Sahara?

Spain and Morocco, the two Mediterranean neighbours, share historical relations and have close economic ties. However, the geopolitical priorities of both the countries have consistently overlapped and have caused instability in their relations.

The principal factors conditioning divergence in the geopolitical area for Spain and Morocco are illegal immigration from Morocco to Spain and the existence of Spanish city enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Africa bordering Morocco. These two factors are often intertwined as Morocco has been employing migration as an instrument of foreign policy against Spain.

Spain’s change in position over the issue of Western Sahara in 2022 has been a result of brewing instability in ties with Morocco that had started in 2020. Morocco had wanted Spain to openly acknowledge and recognize the former’s claim over Western Sahara. Spain’s position was important as it was once the colonizer of Western Sahara.  

Morocco’s confidence to pursue Spain into changing its position started growing when in December 2020 the United States supported Morocco on the issue of Western Sahara. Following the United States’ support Morocco immediately cancelled the summit talks it was going to hold with Spain.

The tensions further exacerbated in April 2021 when Spain hosted Brahim Ghali, the leader of Western Sahara’s pro-independence outfit Polisario Front, for medical treatment at the request of Algeria.

Weeks later, in May 2021, Morocco loosened its border controls to lead around 10,000 illegal immigrants to head to Ceuta to create pressure on Spain. This period also saw a rise in arrival of illegal immigrants to the Canary Islands from southern Morocco and Western Sahara.

Following these incidents, the diplomatic channels between Spain and Morocco were activated and the two sides quietly worked to defuse the tensions. It resulted in Spain changing its position on Western Sahara in March 2022 and Sánchez travelling to Morocco in April 2022 as a mark of easing tensions between the two Mediterranean neighbours. Spain described this meeting as an opportunity to open a new stage in ties with Morocco based on mutual respect.

Spain’s change in strategy towards Western Sahara could also be explained from the perspective of preventing economic challenges in addition to the existing ones that were caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Constant influx of illegal immigrants from Morocco puts strain on the Spanish economy that has been recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are Spain’s relations with Morocco better now?

While Spain has worked overtime to normalize its ties with Morocco, it would be too early to say that the relations have improved. Both the sides have committed to work together, particularly to prevent illegal migration from Morocco into the Spanish territory.

Following this trip in 2022 Sánchez visited Morocco in February 2023 as well. During this visit, both the sides agreed to cooperate on the migration issue from a constructive perspective and open up new channels for regular migration.

However, the friction between Spain and Morocco has continued. Acknowledging Morocco’s stance on Western Sahara has not resulted in Morocco reciprocating the favour by accepting Spain’s sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla. Twice since Spain’s shift in position on Western Sahara, has Morocco refused to recognize Ceuta and Melilla as Spanish territories.

In October 2022, Morocco stated that it shared no land border with Spain implying that Ceuta and Melilla are a part of Morocco. In June 2023, Morocco called Ceuta and Melilla as Moroccan cities following which Madrid lodged a formal complaint with Rabat. Spain also reminded Morocco that Ceuta and Melilla are internationally recognized as Spanish but are surrounded by the Moroccan territory.

Despite these frictions, Spain continues to engage with Morocco and reiterates its stand on Western Sahara. For its part, Morocco has been subtly employing the migration crisis as an instrument for economic gains. The continuing migration crisis has caused Spain to cooperate by investing in Morocco to create greater employment opportunities there that could stem the continuing migration to Spain.

Spain is Morocco’s largest foreign investor.

The migration issue remains an irritant between Spain and Morocco which is directly linked to sovereignty of Spain over Ceuta and Melilla. Spain has continuously sought to balance this issue by accommodating Morocco’s stand on Western Sahara.

For Spain and also for the European Union, it is important to engage with Morocco because Spain being a gateway for Morocco to Europe, any crisis between Spain and Morocco affects the rest of the Europe. Sánchez’s recent trip to Morocco was an attempt towards maintaining normalcy with Morocco. However, it is uncertain if Morocco would respond to these constant positive overtures from Spain.

Niranjan Marjani

Niranjan Marjani is an Independent Political Analyst and Researcher.

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