Opinion

Spain-Morocco High Level Meeting: Opportunities and Challenges

photo_camera marruecos-españa

The High Level Meeting (RAN) between Spain and Morocco will take place on 1 and 2 February. It will be the first meeting between the two countries since 2015, taking place at a good moment in bilateral relations after 2020-2021. In that biennium, Spanish-Moroccan relations suffered a setback due to the conflict over Western Sahara and migration. The current Spanish government's decision last year to support Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara improved the situation. Nevertheless, this RAN faces challenges and opportunities in the fight against irregular migration and the Sahara conflict.

Migration and the Economy: Opportunities and Challenges for Spain

As Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares announced earlier this month, the RAN will address police cooperation against irregular immigration and the strengthening of economic relations between the two sides.

Cooperation against irregular immigration appears to be the most difficult challenge, especially after the media coverage of the behaviour on both sides of the border of the attempt to stop irregular immigrants from entering Melilla last summer. While the incident did not result in a formal condemnation of both sides by Spain and Europe, something that would have angered Morocco, complicating bilateral relations, and irregular immigration from Morocco, both to Ceuta and Melilla and to the Canary Islands, fell in 2022, it is also true that in Spain, the discourse has taken hold that Morocco uses irregular migration as an instrument of pressure to get Spain to adopt a policy that is more amenable to its principles. Such an argument - controversial and simplistic - was reinforced by the Spanish government's change of position on Western Sahara in 2022. Many saw this as a 'surrender' to Morocco in exchange for control of migration flows to Ceuta, Melilla and the Canaries, which had boomed in the 2020-2021 biennium. Both parties are expected to negotiate formulas to improve the containment of irregular immigration. An example of this could be the creation of mixed teams to guard the land borders in Ceuta and Melilla.

With respect to economic relations, the terrain seems more conducive to consensus due to the presence of Spanish companies in Morocco. The opening of customs in Ceuta and Melilla this week is a gesture that demonstrates the willingness of both countries to strengthen trade ties. However, the conflict over the status of Western Sahara could complicate trade. The Polisario Front's ambition to be recognised as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people in Europe, with the power to consent to Spanish business activities in its territory, would complicate Spain's presence in a territory with potential for tourism and renewables. Such a possibility is not unreasonable considering that the European Court of Justice legitimised the Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Saharawis in the EU-Morocco agreements on agriculture and fisheries.

The thorn of Western Sahara

Although not discussed at the RAN, the Western Sahara conflict will be present in Spain on the eve of the summit. It cannot be overlooked that the good moment in Spanish-Moroccan relations is due to Spain's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This decision broke off relations between Spain and the Polisario and was rejected by all political groups in Spain except the Socialist Party. Such rejection has to be taken into account, as Spain may face presidential elections this year, with the possibility of a change of position if there is a change of government. The 16th Congress of the Polisario Front, held this month, was attended by politicians from both sides of the Spanish political spectrum: PP (conservative), Unidas Podemos (left) and EH Bildu (Basque nationalists). The heterogeneity of the Spanish delegates at the Polisario summit indicates that the Saharawi cause enjoys high-level support in Spanish politics. Particularly relevant is the presence of the PP, which polls indicate as the future tenant of the Moncloa. Although it is unlikely that a hypothetical PP government would reverse Spain's current stance, the presence of the PP at the Polisario congress may indicate that it would be willing to establish relations with the Polisario Front, something that would displease Morocco and could result in a new crisis in bilateral relations.

In conclusion, eight years later, the long-awaited RAN between Spain and Morocco will take place on 1 and 2 February. Although relations are on a good footing following the Spanish government's decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the RAN faces challenges such as containing irregular immigration and the Western Sahara conflict. Improvements are expected in cooperation against irregular immigration by both land and sea, thus avoiding a repetition of last year's attempted crossing into Melilla. As for Western Sahara, although it is quite likely that it will not be discussed, it will be present especially as a potential obstacle to Spanish investment. The presence of the PP at the 16th Congress of the Polisario Front may indicate that the PP would be willing to re-establish relations with the Polisario Front, at the risk of provoking a crisis with Morocco.