Can Europe Make It?

Morocco-Spain relations: A new found love

The history of Spanish–Moroccan relations has been defined as one of mutual interests and guarded suspicion. However, Spain’s economic woes and Morocco’s diplomatic needs have led to a marriage of convenience between the two nations.

Hassan Masiky
7 August 2013

The Spanish exclave of Melilla. Wikimedia commons/Paco Solís. Some rights reserved.

Malaga, Spain: As popular outcry over King Mohammed VI of Morocco's inadvertent pardon of a convicted Spanish paedophile subsides, the strength of Moroccan-Spanish relations rises to the surface. Daniel Galvan Vina, who was serving a 30-year sentence in Morocco, was among dozens of jailed Spaniards pardoned at the request of Spain's King Juan Carlos who visited Morocco last month. The Moroccan decision to free the Spaniards was a goodwill gesture to the Spanish Monarch and government.

The history of Spanish–Moroccan relations has been defined as one of mutual interests and guarded suspicion. However, Spain’s economic woes and Morocco’s diplomatic needs have led to a marriage of convenience between the two nations.

To fully grasp the importance and significance of King Juan Carlos’ recent trip to Morocco, one has to visit the city of Fnideq on the Moroccan side of the border with the Spanish controlled autonomous city of Ceuta. My recent stay in the Spanish enclave and a tour of Moroccan cities in “the North” revealed a reversal of roles between the North African Kingdom and its European neighbor. It is not a coincidence that the Spanish Monarch, still recovering from surgery, traveled to Rabat to promote Spanish business interests in Morocco, a country he proclaimed as a "very valuable example of openness and stability".

Spain, the fourth-largest country in Europe, is in need of all the economic and political help it can get to turn around a stubborn recession. Despite a sliver of good economic news, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, facing serious allegations of corruption, continues to fight demands for his removal. With a bleak economic situation, a tense political climate and months of social unrest, King Juan Carlos came to Morocco asking for “support”.

Years of crackdowns by Moroccan police on illicit commerce between the Spanish enclaves (Ceuta and Melilla), and the Moroccan Northern cities has nearly crippled the local economy of Ceuta. With a decline in tourism revenues, unemployment over to 25% and a national debt on the rise, Spain can ill afford an “antagonist” Morocco.

Long gone are the days when it took two hours to enter Ceuta. In two occasions, I was the only one crossing on foot from Morocco. Few cars were waiting, making the police and customs checks a breeze. The absence of smuggling activities that were taking place in and around the checkpoint for years is dramatic and stunning. During the short trip from the borders to downtown Ceuta, a taxi driver lamented the slow and dying economic activities in his town blaming the Moroccan clampdown for the slump.

A tour of markets in the Northern city of Tetuan and the border town of Fnideq reveals a thriving commerce in “made in Morocco” products and an absence of the usual merchandise from Spain. The abundance of locally made goods is yet another sign of Morocco’s success in stopping contraband smuggling from Ceuta and a bad omen for the ailing Spanish economy.

As the global economic situation remains perilous for Spain, King Juan Carlos visited Morocco bringing along several significant political and economic advisors. Promoting his country’s businesses in Morocco during the visit, the Spanish Monarch stated that “We have before us the possibility to generate growth and employment if we know how to maximise the potential of our strategic association, facing the challenges, strengthening our dialogue in the economic sphere and providing a response to the opportunities that globalization offers."

With 19,000 Spanish companies present in Morocco and millions of Euros in revenues, Madrid, quietly and astutely, aligned itself behind Rabat.

If economic issues were heavily present during this visit, pivotal political topics of mutual concerns were deliberately and inexplicably absent. In what can only be described as an “unspoken agreement”, Moroccan officials avoided discussions over the final status of the enclaves while the Spanish delegation eluded comments on Spain’s stand on the Western Sahara.

Morocco considers the cities of Ceuta and Melilla as occupied and has asked Spain in the past to open a dialogue over the future of these territories. For its part, Madrid has been reluctant to acknowledge the legality of Morocco’s capture of the Western Sahara.

For their parts, the Moroccan hosts consciously and wisely, kept controversial topics off the agenda. King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Rajoy have learned the way to do business with Morocco. After years of contentious relations, the Moroccan-Spanish rapport may have reached a matured stage of “self-serving understanding and respect”.

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