The Brussels-Madrid-Rabat triangle: Spain’s role in EU-Morocco relations

21 June 2023 /

9 min

In Spanish diplomacy, there is an unspoken rule since 1983 which sets Morocco as the first country to be visited by the newly appointed Prime Minister of Spain, a tradition that Pedro Sánchez broke for the first time in 2018. Diplomatic relations between the two neighbours have gone through one of their worst crises in recent decades although since the beginning of February 2023, marked by the onset of the Spanish-Moroccan high-level Summit, it seems their diplomatic relations are partially back on track, after important concessions were made on both sides.

However, not only is the Alaouite Kingdom a priority partner for Madrid, but it is also for Brussels as the European Union has proved this by granting first to Morocco a higher rank of partnership than any other nation in the Southern Mediterranean. Accordingly, the consequences of these relationships do not only rebound in Madrid, but also in the corridors of Berlin, Zagreb or Helsinki. In this regard, policymakers within Spain and the EU invest large amounts of both political and economic resources to ensure  good maintenance of relations with the Southern neighbour.

However, what kind of interests does Spain have in Morocco? Migration, territorial integrity and energy are the three main axes on which Spanish foreign policy is structured, aligning with the interests of Brussels. Regarding migration, Spain is the first EU Member State in terms of irregular arrivals by land, the second one when taking into account arrivals by land and sea, and ranks third in asylum applications. In this respect , it is important to keep in mind that Spanish soil is also European soil, a notion that also extends to the principle of respecting territorial integrity, as Spain is the only EU Member State with sovereign enclaves on the African mainland. Said territories have been threatened by Morocco several times as in the cases of Ceuta, Melilla, the Canary Islands and the Perejil islet. Finally, it is crucial to acknowledge the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has prompted  Europe into a desperate search for alternative sources of energy. Taking into account the potential of Morocco as a transit country and Algeria as an energy exporter, Spain wishes to play a pivotal role in becoming the new European energy hub. 

Nevertheless, these interests are difficult to articulate when Morocco’s ambitions enter the equation, which could potentially lead to direct conflict with those of Spain. First of all, Morocco intends  to isolate its biggest adversary, Algeria, which was until 2022 a key partner of Spain. Secondly, it is critical to consider the  situation in Western Sahara. This territory was under Spanish colonial rule until 1976. Since then, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over the territory, which is not recognised by the United Nations. In this regard, Spain has traditionally maintained a neutral position, without recognising neither the independent Sahara nor Moroccan sovereignty, something the African Kingdom yearns for. Finally, it is necessary to take into account  Spain’s lobbying on behalf of  Morocco in the European Union, attempting to maximise its economic and political interests.

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Scanning of the relations

Morocco has recognised  in its relations with European countries a chance to achieve fruitful deals, acting in exchange as a plug not only for migratory flows but also for terrorist threats, sometimes using this role as a political weapon in order to obtain more concessions. In this regard, relations between the two countries remained on their traditional track until the beginning of 2020, followed by an increase of tensions concerning  the sovereign waters of the Canary Islands. The two laws approved by the Moroccan Parliament sought to expand the exploitation zone to unilaterally seize areas belonging only to Western Sahara. However, the measure would have a negative impact in Spain’s. As tensions rose once again around Moroccan sovereignty and the idea of Greater Morocco, which includes the Spanish archipelago, the former Spanish foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, paid a visit to Morocco to discuss the situation. 

A month after this scenario, the Covid-19 pandemic came to reveal  the diplomatic wear and tear between the two kingdoms, showing a deep lack of coordination to facilitate the passage of 20.000 people that cross the borders daily. This experience demonstrated  the deficit in relations between the two countries that were incapable of partially fixing the border challenge until a few months had passed, and definitively until 2022 with the Operation Crossing the Strait and the mobilisation of more than three million people across the borders. 

However, tension between both countries escalated in March 2021, just one year after the beginning of the pandemic. The Spanish government received a call from the authorities of Western Sahara, requesting health care in Spanish territory for the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, who was reportedly in critical condition due to Covid-19. Without consulting  Pedro Sánchez, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by former minister Laya, decided to accept the petition under  humanitarian reasons, using a fake name to protect Ghali’s identity. For the purpose of establishing the necessary context, the Polisario Front, a group for the liberation of Western Sahara, had fought for years against Morocco, rendering consequently Brahim Ghali as a terrorist leader by the Moroccan authorities. This clumsy manoeuvre by Spain’s government would be discovered by the Moroccan intelligence services, triggering  a diplomatic crisis. Morocco withdrew its ambassador from Madrid and summoned the Spanish ambassador in Rabat in order to provide explanations. As a result, the Spanish executive opted to replace  Minister Laya  with the current Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares.

On top of the diplomatic disaster, two months later Spain suffered reprisals when Morocco opened its borders in Ceuta, allowing 12,000 immigrants to enter Spain. This act only triggered  a few statements at the EU level, and no concrete actions were taken by Brussels; the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed  her support for Spain and emphasised  the need for a New Pact on Migration. The President of the Council, Charles Michel, held talks with Pedro Sánchez, to whom he conveyed his solidarity, and the Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, condemned Morocco’s actions and stressed that Spanish borders are Europe’s. On the other side, the Moroccan ambassador in Madrid stressed  that there are acts that have consequences. As it can be observed, border control is not only a priority for Spain, which allocates thirty million euros to Morocco annually to curve migration flows but also for the European Union, which has increased its funds to the African Kingdom from 300 to 500 million, becoming the second neighbouring country of the EU that receives the largest quantity of such  aid.

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After this crisis, in March 2022, the Spanish government unilaterally decided to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara as a way to mend relations with its Southern neighbour, via a private letter from Pedro Sánchez to King Mohamed VI, a position that is not backed neither by the European Union nor the United Nations. Consequently, Algeria, an important energy partner, decided to rescind the Treaty of Friendship signed along with Spain in 2002, breaking all commercial and diplomatic relations. 

Nevertheless, tensions still remained concerning the Spanish sovereignty of territories in the African mainland, when the Moroccan Royal House stated in a letter addressed to the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations (OHCHR), that Spain and Morocco do not share land borders, referring to Ceuta and Melilla. In this regard and following the  timeline, Pedro Sánchez made two clever diplomatic steps regarding the integrity of all the Spanish territories claimed by Morocco: The first one during the Madrid NATO Summit in June 2022, when the military alliance included in the treaties the protection of the Spanish intercontinental lands. Secondly, he made a last step at the high-level summit between the two countries in early February 2023, when Morocco signed an agreement rejecting any attempt to claim sovereignty over the cities and the archipelago. Such a summit marks a new stage in relations between the two countries, not without witnessing the remaining tensions as Mohamed VI clearly proved when he deliberately decided not to welcome Pedro Sánchez on his visit.

Finally, one last move by Spain shows us the particular agenda that the Iberian Kingdom maintains towards Morocco, of ironclad pragmatism and far  from European expectations. Recently, in a vote in the European Parliament to condemn the persecution suffered by journalists in Morocco, MEPs from the Spanish Prime Minister’s party received  orders from Madrid to vote against it. Days after, Pedro Sánchez defended his position at the Spanish Parliament in the following terms:

It is in our interest to maintain the best relations, not only for Spain but also for the European Union[…] Facts confirm  Morocco’s importance for both Spain and Europe[…] I will always defend the preservation of good relations with Morocco.”  Pedro Sánchez, Prime Minister of Spain.25/01/2023

The essential role of Spain: pragmatism or improvisation?

The role of Spain in the Brussels-Madrid-Rabat triangle is decisive for two reasons: On the one hand, there are the historical relations between the two neighbours, including the recent colonial past and the  good relationship between the two royal houses. On the other hand, the EU has no clear agenda towards Morocco apart from trade, which makes the EU rely on Spain as intermediary in areas related to foreign and security policy. This is also how Pedro Sánchez seems to see it, when he claims to defend Europe’s interests.

It is true that Spain has assumed the leadership and paid the consequences of its  decisions, which have resulted in both  moments of crisis and appeasement. Under a pragmatic approach, Spain has  acted either far from Brussels’ interests as a lobbyist for Morocco, or close to the EU as a shield against Rabat. This strategy has been noticed by the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Nasser Bourita, who accused Spain of trying to turn a political crisis between the two countries into an EU problem by focusing on migration issues and ignoring the root causes. 

It can be observed that Spain appears to be pragmatic. However,  the lack  of European coordination has pushed the EU to rely on the ad hoc  decisions of the Iberian Kingdom, causing reverberating repercussions throughout the European territory. On one hand, due to its tendency towards improvisation, Spain may have not emerged as the winner of the decisions it has taken. This is evident considering that Italy is closer to becoming the new European energy hub by using the Algerian gas, representing a missed opportunity for Spain. On the contrary, taking into account that Spain is the largest foreign investor in Morocco, even before the US or China, it can be concluded that said pragmatism may have helped the Iberian country to permeate  Africa and its market through the Alaouite Kingdom. It should be highlighted that Moroco stands as the second largest African investor on the continent, while Spain ranks second among European investors.

[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]

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