Spain and Morocco will meet for the first time in eight years on Thursday. In an effort to deepen commercial ties and build on a diplomatic ceasefire agreed upon last year following conflicts over migration and territory.
The signing of up to 20 agreements to increase trade and investment, including credit lines of up to 800 million euros ($873 million), and to bring the two countries closer together in areas other than migration will take place in Rabat when Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and 12 members of his cabinet meet with their Moroccan counterparts.
In 2022, the value of bilateral commerce increased to 17 billion euros, making Spain and Morocco’s largest trading partners.
Madrid is attempting to mend a tense relationship with Rabat that has frequently resulted in diplomatic problems, most recently the invasion of Spain’s north African outpost of Ceuta by 8,000 migrants in 2021 after Morocco eased border controls.
The protest was perceived as a reaction to Madrid’s decision to permit Brahim Ghali, the rebel group’s leader who wants to found an independent state in Western Sahara, to enter Spain for medical treatment without alerting Rabat.
In March 2022, Sanchez improved ties with Rabat after overturning Spain’s four-decade Western Sahara policy by supporting Morocco’s call for the creation of an independent entity.
Algeria, a Polisario Front ally, expressed its displeasure at the about-face by suspending a 20-year friendship agreement with Spain and threatening to cut off natural gas supplies even as it forges closer gas ties with Italy.
The disputes highlight Spain’s reliance on Morocco to regulate migration by Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans trying to cross the southernmost border of the European Union.
When its law enforcement stopped a major attempt to cross into Melilla, Spain’s second North African enclave, last June, it delivered a brutal demonstration of its crucial role in the migratory issue. At least 23 people were killed and scores more were injured.
THE TAP, HAND
Madrid has welcomed a general decline in migration numbers, both to the Spanish archipelago and via the Western Mediterranean route, particularly as migrant arrivals to Europe via other Mediterranean routes rise. However, an inquiry into that occurrence by the Spanish Ombudsman is still ongoing.
The Interior Ministry reported a 30% decrease in illegal entry to the Canary Islands in 2022 compared to the previous year.
Some commentators say that Spain continues to be overly dependent on Morocco and that the decline in migration may only be transitory.
According to Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, “Morocco has its hand on the tap and uses migration as a method to send messages to its northern neighbors and even to extract concessions.”
According to Blanca Garces, senior researcher in migration at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, Spain and Morocco must work more closely to repatriate unlawful Moroccan migrants if migration is to continue to decline.
Only 5.5% of Spain’s 28,349 requests for extradition were successful in 2021, according to the country’s ombudsman. Expulsions declined by 69% to 1,569 in 2021 compared to 2016.
In order to maintain the cease-fire, Sanchez’s Socialists have been driven into some awkward situations, such as voting against a motion in the European Parliament that would have urged Morocco to do more to protect press freedom.
Juan Fernando Lopez, an MEP for the Socialist Party, remarked at an event on Monday that sacrifices were sometimes necessary to maintain cordial relations with a neighbor, reasoning that “if you have to swallow a toad, you swallow it”.