by Ambra Visentin

After an eight-year hiatus, and for the first time since 2015, a government plane took off from Madrid for Rabat on Wednesday afternoon. On board were Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and a dozen ministers. Sánchez is expected to meet his Moroccan counterpart, Aziz Akhannouch. The bilateral meeting follows the first step taken by the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, in April 2022, when he invited the Prime Minister to return to his country.

For days Madrid has been talking about a ‘historic’ meeting. Today, at the end of intergovernmental consultations, some 20 bilateral agreements will be signed. The aim is to increase economic and commercial exchanges between the two countries, but also to improve their diplomatic relations after the shortcomings of recent years, complicated by the Western Sahara issue and migratory pressures. The images from the Moroccan capital are intended to show the world that the great crisis is finally over and will not be repeated: In Rabat, the Spanish government wants to lay the foundations for a new mechanism to ensure that the Western Mediterranean Partnership becomes more stable over time.

“If we have to swallow a lot of toads, we will,” summarised Spanish Socialist MEP Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar a few days ago, stressing the absolute priority of reaching a good understanding with Morocco based on mutual respect. This understanding should be reached even at the cost of aligning with Rabat by renouncing the right to self-determination for Western Sahara, in order to recognise the Moroccan autonomy plan as ‘the most credible, serious and realistic option for resolving the conflict’. With these words, in a letter written last spring, Sánchez abandoned Spanish neutrality after more than 40 years. As an autonomous region, the former Spanish colony would remain part of Morocco. This would isolate Spain in the international community, which insists on a UN-led negotiated solution acceptable to all parties. Morocco urges its European partners to follow the example of then US President Donald Trump, who recognised Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

Two weeks ago, on 19 January, in order not to upset Rabat before the summit, MEPs from the Socialist Party (PSOE) rejected a resolution in the European Parliament that would have criticised Morocco more strongly than ever for the deterioration of press freedom and accusations of corruption. Yolanda Díaz, Sánchez’s deputy, felt that these concessions were too much and that the price of repairing Mediterranean relations was too high. For this reason, Díaz and all the other ministers of the coalition partner Podemos boycotted the trip to Morocco.

Trade has already picked up, with Spanish exports up 26% last year. “But the reconciliation between the two countries is happening more slowly and less intensively than Madrid had hoped,” says Eduard Soler Lecha, professor of international relations at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who specialises in Spanish foreign policy in North Africa. Another step would be to find a formula that would guarantee the opening of stable border crossings in Ceuta and Melilla, despite the disagreement over the sovereignty of the territories. This would be a way to facilitate the legal movement of goods and people, but also “to prevent the institutions and inhabitants of both cities from feeling that they are living in a permanent state of suffocation,” he notes.

Cover image: Pedro Sánchez, © La Moncloa Gobierno de Espana on Flickr