Spain and Morocco seek to reestablish problematic relations at the summit in Rabat News

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez says Spain and Morocco have agreed to put aside their differences as they seek to repair a relationship marred by frequent disputes over migration and territory.

Sanchez was speaking Thursday at a summit in Rabat where the two countries signed about 20 agreements to boost trade and investment, including credit lines of up to 800 million euros ($873 million).

“We have agreed on a commitment to mutual respect, whereby in our discourse and in our political practice we will avoid anything that we know offends the other side, especially with regard to our spheres of sovereignty,” Sanchez said.

There have been regular diplomatic crises over Spain’s enclaves in Africa, Morocco’s dispute with rebels over the Western Sahara region and the arrival of refugees and migrants to Spain each year via Morocco.

Morocco refuses to recognize Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, but last year the two countries agreed to open the first customs control in Ceuta.

Madrid says this reflects Rabat’s recognition of the enclaves as foreign territory, but Morocco has not made any public statement to show that its long-standing position that the enclaves should be part of its territory has changed.

Sanchez restored cordial relations with Rabat in March 2022 after reversing Spain’s policy on the disputed territory of Western Sahara by backing Morocco’s proposal to create an autonomous region. The Algerian-backed breakaway Front Polisario movement seeks to establish an independent state in the region.

Yasmine Hasnaoui, an expert on North African affairs at the Al Andalous Institute for Saharan Studies, told Al Jazeera that Sanchez’s visit to Rabat marked a reset in relations with Morocco.

“The Spanish government’s visit to Morocco opens a new era thanks to a clear roadmap after Spain’s autonomy plan unequivocally recognized Morocco’s historic sovereignty over its territory in Western Sahara,” she said.

“The Spanish Prime Minister reiterated today that this new phase of bilateral relations with Morocco is considered an important partner with the EU in the fight against extremism, terrorism and helping the bloc’s migration policy.

As the third largest destination for Spanish exports in the world, Hasnaoui said Spain also sees Morocco as a strategic economic partner.

“Spain has become aware that its profits are not only in Europe, but its interests are mainly in Morocco and the south in general,” she added.

But creating better relations between neighbors has forced Sanchez’s socialists into some awkward positions.

Last month, its MEPs voted against a European Parliament resolution calling on Morocco to improve its record on press freedom. MEP Juan Fernando Lopez said this week that maintaining cordial neighborly relations sometimes involves “swallowing a toad”.

Tensions with Algeria

Spain’s pivot to Western Sahara has angered Algeria, an ally of the Polisario Front, which has suspended trade with Spain and warned it could cut off natural gas flows even as it forges closer gas ties with Italy.

Spanish exports to Algeria fell 41 percent to 1 billion euros ($1.09 billion) in the January-November 2022 period compared to a year earlier, according to Industry Ministry data. Its exports to Morocco rose 27 percent to 10.8 billion euros in the same period.

Spain expects to receive a significant portion of the 45 billion euros that Morocco is supposed to invest by 2050 in infrastructure improvements, a Spanish government source said.

Spanish companies are well positioned to win concessions in key sectors of Rabat’s development plan, such as water drainage and renewable energy, the person said.

State rail operators Renfe and Adif are collaborating with their Moroccan counterpart to develop new rail lines, which could mean €6 billion of work.

Spain is discussing how to remove Morocco from the gray list of money-laundering countries, another government source said.

A delegation from the Financial Action Task Force, the Paris-based global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, visited Morocco last month and is expected to announce its decision later this month on whether Morocco can be removed from the list.

In Rabat on Thursday, Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch expressed satisfaction with Spain’s support for Morocco’s autonomy plan as the “most credible solution” to resolving the Western Sahara dispute, but made no mention of an agreement to set aside all sovereignty disputes.

The joint declaration did not mention Spanish enclaves in Morocco, although it reiterated Spain’s new position on Western Sahara. Morocco said it expected Spain’s upcoming presidency of the European Union to mean it could act as a conduit for better relations with the bloc.

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