Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Spain and Morocco have agreed to resolve their differences as they seek to improve relations marked by frequent conflicts over migration and territorial issues.
Sanchez was speaking Thursday at a conference in Rabat where the two countries signed nearly 20 agreements to boost trade and investment, including loans of up to 800 million euros.
“We have agreed to commit to mutual respect, so in our speeches and in our politics we will avoid anything that we know offends the other party, especially in terms of governance,” Sanchez said.
There have been constant conflicts over Spain’s status in North Africa, Morocco’s conflicts with rebels in the Western Sahara region, and the arrival of refugees and migrants to Spain each year through Morocco.
Morocco refuses to recognize Spain’s control over Ceuta and Melilla, but last year, the two countries agreed to open the first customs office in Ceuta.
Madrid said the move reflected Rabat’s recognition of the enclaves as foreign territory, but Morocco has not publicly said its long-held view that the enclaves should be part of its territory has changed.
Sanchez restored good relations with Rabat in March 2022 after changing Spain’s policy on the disputed territory of Western Sahara in favor of Morocco’s proposal to create an autonomous region. The Algerian-backed Polisario Front wants to establish an independent state in the region.
Yasmine Hasnaoui, a North African expert at the Institute of Saharan Studies Al Andalous, told Al Jazeera that Sanchez’s visit to Rabat signaled a resumption of relations with Morocco.
“The visit of the Spanish government to Morocco brings a new era for clear roads after the Spanish state implicitly accepted that Morocco was the historical authority of Morocco on its territory in the Western Sahara through a self-governing system,” he said.
“The Prime Minister of Spain said it again today [in] this new phase of diplomatic relations with Morocco, [it] he is seen as a key ally of the EU in fighting extremism, terrorism and supporting the bloc’s immigration policies. “
As the third largest destination for Spain in the world, Hasnaoui said Spain also sees Morocco as an economic partner.
“Spain has realized that its benefits are not only found in Europe, but its interests are also found in Morocco and the whole south,” he added.
But building good relations between neighbors has forced members of Sanchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party into a difficult position.
Last month, its MEPs voted against a European Parliament resolution calling on Morocco to change its record on press freedom. MEP Juan Fernando Lopez said this week that maintaining good relations sometimes involves “swallowing frogs”.
Struggle with Algeria
Madrid’s turn to Western Sahara has angered Algeria, an ally of the Polisario Front, which has suspended trade with Spain and warned it could reduce gas flows to Spain despite its strong alliance with Italy.
Spain’s exports to Algeria fell by 41% to 1 billion euros in January-November 2022 compared to the previous year, according to the Ministry of Industry. Morocco’s exports rose by 27 percent to 10.8 billion in the same period.
Spain hopes to get the 45 billion that Morocco has to invest by 2050 in infrastructure development, said a Spanish government source.
Spanish companies have a chance to win in key areas of Rabat’s development plan, such as water sanitation and renewable energy, the person said.
State-owned railway operators Renfe and Adif are working with their Moroccan partners to build new trains, which could mean 6 billion in business.
Spain is discussing how to remove Morocco from the gray list of money laundering countries, a government official said.
A delegation from the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based international financial watchdog that monitors financial crimes, visited Morocco last month and is expected to announce later this month its decision on whether Morocco should 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 a “credible solution” to the conflict in Western Sahara, but did not mention an agreement to resolve all autonomy disputes.
The joint declaration made no mention of Spanish territories in Morocco, although it reiterated Spain’s claims to Western Sahara.
Morocco has said it hopes Spain’s incoming presidency of the European Union will mean it can become a conduit for better relations with the bloc.