After the dreadful sufferings and emotional reactions triggered by the 11 March 2004 attack against the Madrid railway station, it is certain that the relationship with Morocco will be one of the top priorities facing the new Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Many Moroccans were involved in the attack as victims as they have been in German, French, and American terrorist incidents; even worse, for Morocco itself, were the 16 May 2003 attacks in Casablanca which killed 45 people. Moroccans asked after that: how can they murder their own people?
One of the immediate local, and European, reactions to Madrid was to target Moroccan citizens living in Spain, and in Europe generally with racist slurs, and even physical aggression. This led some Moroccan democrats and their organisations to schedule a "Train for Life" project. This train was to leave Casablanca on Sunday 21 March and travel all the way to Séville, Madrid, and then Paris.
On board would be artists, musicians, writers, and militants who wanted to show sympathy with the Spanish people, and their utter rejection and condemnation of Islamist terrorism. The last stop was to be in Paris, with a meeting in front of the Spanish embassy on 23 March. Spanish authorities, however, did not think it was such a good idea in current circumstances. The Train for Life project had to be cancelled.
But beyond these circumstantial efforts and difficulties lie complex, thorny and long-standing problems which have separated Spain from Morocco for decades. A major questions Zapatero will have to deal with when his government is formed is the Spanish governments attitude vis-à-vis Rabat. Will he open negotiations with this historically conservative monarchical Arab state? What will be the main issues that will bind and separate the two governments?
The first question on the agenda will be intelligence-sharing. Curiously, this is not the most difficult: after all, information has been flowing across the Straits for a few years now, even more so since the Casablanca tragedy. But did Spain pay enough attention to its intelligence colleagues warnings? If so, why were notoriously dangerous characters, caught red-handed after the trains were blown up, no longer under surveillance?
Where sharing has grown ever more intense is over the continued emigration of thousands of North Africans to Europe via Gibraltar, the Canary Islands and Spain. Some in Europe love the phenomenon, especially the guarantee of low salaries. But only provided the immigrants are neither seen nor heard... and that is more and more rare. Hence a Moroccan-Spanish collaboration to stop the flow of emigrants, electric barbed-wire fences included.
But in addition to terrorism and emigration there are four other even more sensitive issues between the two countries:
- fishing rights, which have entailed an ongoing, sometimes violent, conflict between Europe (not just Spain) and Morocco a Morocco that also wishes to enter Europe
- drug trafficking, heavily subsidised and organised by semi-official Moroccan authorities
- Spains famous presidios, the urban enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla sitting along the southern Mediterranean coast. These (like the tiny, uninhabited island of Perejil / Leila) are not only colonial leftovers, which raise touchy nationalist issues among Moroccans; they also make it easier for emigrants and drug traffickers to cross the Straits.
- the Western Sahara question, where the Polisario movement of Sahraouis, supported by Algeria, claims ownership of former Spanish colonial territory now occupied by Morocco, which is broadly backed by the United States.
Thus, inside and alongside the Madrid tragedy are contained other major national and international problems involving Spain and Morocco. The question is whether the attacks will make it more difficult for these two countries to open real negotiations for their mutual benefit. Or easier?