It seems that the eight-year-long “honey moon” in the relations between Morocco and Spain will soon come to an end. All polls in Spain show that the conservative party, the Partido Popular (PP), is likely to win the upcoming general elections, scheduled to take place in March 2012.
Fez – The global financial and economic crisis has taken a toll on the popularity of the government of Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero, whose Socialist party is struggling to revive its chances of staying in power. What impact will this political change have on the relations between Morocco and Spain?
Since the advent of democracy in Spain after King Juan Carlos came to power in November 1975, relations between Morocco and Spain have been subjected to frequent tensions, due to thorny issues, such as the Sahara, the question of Ceuta and Melilla (two Spanish enclaves in the Moroccan hinterland) drug trafficking, negotiations on fishing agreements, immigration and economic competition.
However, in spite of the contentious political agenda between the countries, Morocco has managed to maintain good neighborly relations with Spain, which have been at their best during periods of left-of-center Spanish governments. Beginning in 1982, when the “Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol” (PSOE) came to power, relations between Morocco and Spain witnessed steady improvements. This was translated into more economic and cultural cooperation.
In less than a decade, Spain managed to surpass other countries, such as Italy, Germany and the UK, to become the second largest economic partner of Morocco after France. This leap in relations between the two countries was in part due to the far-sighted leadership of former Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, and Foreign Minister, Fernando Moran who were aware of the necessity to establish stable relations with Spain’s Moroccan counterparts and were eager to compromise in order to reach that goal.
Gonzales and Moran were intimately convinced that the creation of closer economic and cultural ties between the two neighbors and an increase in high level meetings between officials was likely to lay the foundations for a new era in the relations between the two countries, create more trust and work towards converging their strategic interests. They were also convinced that the strengthening of economic interests could minimize the negative impact of territorial disputes (Ceuta, Melilla and the Sahara). Thanks to this vision and the willingness of the Spanish government to compromise with Morocco, as well as the eagerness of Moroccan leadership to open a new chapter in its relationship with its northern neighbor, relations between the two countries were no longer analyzed from a prism of confrontation and mistrust, but rather from a prism of cooperation and confidence-building.
This improvement in relations between the two countries was crowned by the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations on July 4th 1991, in Rabat.
The same scenario transpired when the PSOE, led by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, returned to power in March 2004. After a period of stagnation in the relations between Morocco and Spain under the governance of the Popular Party lead by Jose Maria Aznar from 1996-2004, which was characterized by recurrent strains and frictions, a new leap in the relations between the two countries was witnessed. This was translated into the deepening of cooperation between both governments over the immigration issue and the reinforcement of their cultural and economic ties.
Moreover, in October 2004, Morocco and Spain decided to send a joint peacekeeping unit to Haiti under the auspices of the United Nations. In the same connection, Madrid also adopted a more neutral stance regarding the question of the Sahara and expressed its tacit support for the Autonomy Plan presented by Morocco in April 2007, as a compromise solution to the long-lasting conflict. The position earned the Spanish government criticism from civil society organizations in Spain that accused their government of siding with Morocco and sacrificing the “right of the Sahrawis to regain control over the Sahara.” Spain has also played a key role, along with France, in pushing the European Union to grant an advanced status to Morocco in its relations with this entity.
The dark episode during the administration of Jose Maria Aznar
Most observers of relations between Morocco and Spain concur that these relations are better off when the tenant of Moncloa is from the left-of-center PSOE. As a matter of fact, relations between Morocco and Spain had never been as strained as during the administration of Jose Maria Aznar from 1996 to 2004. Instead of following the steps of his predecessor and building on the approach engineered by Moran towards Spain’s southern neighbor, Aznar chose a heavy-handed and confrontational policy in dealing with Morocco.
This became all the more clear when on 25 April 2001, Aznar stated in a defiant tone that the failure of negotiations for the renewal of a fishing agreement between Morocco and the EU would have serious consequences on relations between both Morocco and Spain, hinting at the possibility that the latter might stop its financial aid to the former and freeze all economic and cultural programs between the two governments.
During the Spanish presidency of the EU between January and June 2002, Aznar went as far, in his unfriendly dealings with Morocco, as proposing an immigration plan aimed at punishing third countries that were not seen as sufficiently cooperative with the EU in curbing the inflow of illegal immigration to European territories. Among the measure included in this proposal was the suspension of financial aid and cooperation agreements with countries perceived as lax in their efforts to stop illegal immigration. Through this failed proposal Aznar sought to retaliate against Morocco after its refusal to renew the fishing agreement.
The misunderstanding and divorce between officials of the two neighbors reached its pinnacle on July 17, 2002, during the so-called Crisis of Leila (the Perejil island crisis for Spaniards). In a show of force scorned by most foreigner media, Madrid ordered warships to dislodge seven Moroccan guards who had planted the Moroccan flag on the tiny island of Leila located less than 200 meters from the Moroccan cost.
During this dark episode in relations between Morocco and Spain, Spanish media, barring few exceptions, did not spare efforts to point out the absence of will on the part of the Moroccan government to cooperate in good faith with Madrid on the most pressing issues of its agenda. It wasn’t uncommon to see editorials and opinion pieces, especially in the conservative newspapers, where Morocco’s King, Mohammed VI, was depicted in a derogatory manner.
Back to square one?
By reading blogs and news portals run by Spanish conservatives, one can come to the conclusion that the leaders of the Popular Party, as well as its electoral base, still have the same outdated view of Morocco. They still perceive it as a threat to Spanish stability that ought to be contained and kept at bay, rather than as a fully-fledged partner worthy of trust.
As recently as last Thursday, July 7th, a conservative online-based news portal, Region de Malaga, ran an opinion piece in which it brought up one of the most popular theories among the electoral base of the PP: “Morocco was the mastermind of the terrorist attacks that occurred in Madrid on March 11th, 2004, which, purportedly caused the defeat of the PP in the general elections”.
In a slander-filled opinion piece entitled “Estuvo Morocco detras del 11M?” (Was Morocco behind the March 11th?), Victor Ros, accuses Morocco of being behind the terrorist attacks that befell Madrid on the eve of the general elections in March 2004. Without providing any evidence that might substantiate his claims, the author argues that Morocco “planned these attacks ahead of time in order to achieve two goals”: to get revenge over the humiliation inflicted on it by Aznar during the Leila episode in July 2002 and to return the PP to the role of the opposition in Spanish politics, clearing the way for Morocco to achieve its strategic interests.
Ros goes on to say that the terrorist attacks were plotted at the headquarters of France’s General Directorate for External Security (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure), adding that Aznar hinted before the commission of inquiry on the attacks, at Morocco’s role in these tragic events. Furthermore, Victor Ros did not hesitate in describing King Mohamed VI as a “satrap and murderer”, which is not an uncommon view among many conservative media outlets in Spain.
However untruthful and unfounded these allegations might be, the fact is this sort of claim resonates and has followers among the hardliners of the conservative party. This kind of publication sets the tone of the media coverage that might, once again, target Morocco during the period leading up to Spain’s general elections and after a return of the conservatives to power.
In the likely scenario that the conservative party wins the elections next year, chances are that relations between Morocco and Spain will not be as cordial as during Zapatero’s tenure.
There is no doubt that regarding issues of foreign policy, especially those related to Morocco, the leaders of the Popular Party will tap into the anti-Moroccan sentiment prevailing among most Spaniards in order to achieve a landslide victory during the elections and obtain a comfortable majority in the parliament.
As recently as last Saturday, the leader of the PP, Mariano Rajoy, expressed his opposition to the possibility that Moroccans living in Spain’s two North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, gain the right to vote during the next municipal elections to be held in 2015. This statement came after the positive vote on the new Moroccan constitution, which will provide Spaniards living on Moroccan soil with the right to vote in municipal elections. This will, thus, enable Moroccans, according to the principle of reciprocity, to vote in municipal elections in Spain.
The arguments put forth by the PP to oppose the vote of Moroccans living in the enclaves, is that the vote of Moroccan immigrants would tilt the balance in favor of the parties that represent naturalized Moroccans living in Ceuta and Melilla, considered by the PP as pro-Moroccan and supportive of Morocco’s position regarding the territories’ status. The PP also argues that the right to vote in Ceuta and Melilla cannot be granted to citizens of a country that claims its sovereignty over them.
But it seems that the main concern of the PP is that the vote of immigrants impairs or even threatens its comfortable absolute majority in the two enclaves, confirmed by municipal elections held last May.
Taking into account that the PP is a staunch defender of the “Spanishness” of Ceuta and Melilla, chances are that both enclaves would be excluded from any agreement signed between Morocco and Spain regarding the reciprocity of votes in municipal elections.
It is even possible that under a PP government, such an agreement between the two countries may not be reached. We may witness, once again, media coverage where talking heads and public opinion shapers, known for their anti-Moroccan leanings, put forth the argument that granting Moroccans the right to vote might disrupt the political equilibrium in Spain. One of the arguments that may be used by conservative fearmongers is the fact that cultural and religious differences between Moroccan immigrants and the host country make them non-integrable in Spanish society and, thus, not fit to participate in political life.
Given the century-old mistrust of Spaniards towards their southern neighbors, we might witness a heated debate on whether Moroccans should be granted the right to vote in municipal elections, both in continental Spain and in Ceuta and Melilla.
As regards the Sahara issue, it would not be surprising to observe that a new conservative Spanish government shift from a neutral position to a policy that might be perceived by Morocco as contrary to its interests concerning this conflict.
Based on the foregoing, one can state that it would be more appropriate for Morocco to brace for a broad range of scenarios regarding the Sahara issue. Moreover, Moroccan officials, as well the media have to be proactive and prepared to handle in the best way possible the ways in which a new Spanish government will address these questions.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis