New York - Following the abdication of former Spanish King Juan Carlos I and the coronation of King Felipe VI, Moroccans and others wondered whether the new Spanish monarch would manifest the same interest in Morocco and the same eagerness to cultivate a privileged relationship with King Mohammed VI. Still, others wondered whether this change in the Spanish throne would adversely affect the relations between Madrid and Rabat. It did not take long for the Spanish head of state to put an end to the suspense and dispel all doubts on the future of relations between the two Mediterranean neighbors.
New York – Following the abdication of former Spanish King Juan Carlos I and the coronation of King Felipe VI, Moroccans and others wondered whether the new Spanish monarch would manifest the same interest in Morocco and the same eagerness to cultivate a privileged relationship with King Mohammed VI. Still, others wondered whether this change in the Spanish throne would adversely affect the relations between Madrid and Rabat. It did not take long for the Spanish head of state to put an end to the suspense and dispel all doubts on the future of relations between the two Mediterranean neighbors.
At the outset, as I said in my previous article, one has to keep in mind that Spain’s King has no major role in his country’s foreign policy nor does he have any decision-making authority. The King’s role in Spain’s foreign policy depends on how much room for maneuver is left for him by the Prime Minister.
That being said, the Spanish King’s visit to Morocco on Monday is of crucial significance and proves the importance of Morocco to Spanish foreign policy, especially as it took place only a few weeks after King Felipe ascended to the throne.
Morocco is the third country to be visited by the Spanish king, following the Vatican and Portugal, and the first country he has visited outside of the European Union. By choosing Morocco as his first foreign destination after the EU, King Felipe shows his keenness not only to bring the level of cooperation between Morocco and Spain to a higher level, but also to preserve the strong and intimate relationship that exists between the countries’ two royal families.
This visit is in line with a long held tradition in Spain’s foreign policy, inaugurated in 1982, when former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez chose Morocco as his first foreign destination following his election. In fact, many Spanish analysts say that Morocco is not considered part of Spain’s foreign policy, but rather considered part of its internal domestic policy.
There is no doubt that this visit contributes to reinforcing the trust between the leaders of both countries and enhancing their cooperation in different areas.
An important point should be stressed with respect to the relations between Morocco and Spain, which may explain the ceremonious manner in which the Spanish was received in Rabat. The strong personal relationship between both countries’ royal families is considered to be a security valve safeguarding the relations between Rabat and Madrid’s governments, and a factor that contributes to promoting confidence-building between the two governments. There have been several instances when personal contacts between the two heads of state contributed to defusing minor diplomatic crises between Morocco and Spain.
The personal telephone calls of the former King Juan Carlos, whether with King Hassan II or now King Mohamed VI, played a major role in preventing minor incidents from escalating into a major diplomatic crisis between the two countries. And even during times of diplomatic crisis between both governments, contact has never been severed between both countries’ heads of state. For instance, at the height of the diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain from 2000 to 2003? which reached its peak in July 2012 with the Leila Island crisis, while communication between King Mohammed VI and then Prime Minister José María Aznar was severed, the channels of communication between King Mohammed VI and former King Juan Carlos I remained open.
Unprecedented Economic and Political Cooperation
This visit comes one year after former King Juan Carlos visited Morocco in July 2013 and during a period when economic exchanges between both countries are at their peak. At the economic level, Spain has become for the first time Morocco’s primary economic partner, elbowing out France, which held this position for five decades. Meanwhile Morocco has become Spain’s second largest client outside of the European Union after the United States. Morocco is also Spain’s largest economic partner in Africa and the Arab world.
At the political and security levels, there is growing coordination between the two countries in addressing the threats posed by organized crime, terrorism and narcotics. Since 2004, Rabat has been instrumental in helping Madrid cope with illegal immigrants coming from Africa, who use the borders between Morocco and the two colonized cities, Ceuta and Melilla, as a bridge to reach Spanish territory. In this regard, there is a broad consensus among observers that the level of cooperation between the two governments has reached an unprecedented level. The same can be said for cooperation between Madrid and Rabat in the fight against terrorism, extremism, and narcotics.
Tradeoffs on Ceuta and Melilla and the Western Sahara
On the other hand, given its desire to maintain this positive momentum in its relations with Spain, Morocco seems to have temporarily put its territorial claims over the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the back burner. During the eighties and nineties and the first few years of King Mohammed VI’s reign, Rabat seized every opportunity to reclaim the return of these cities to Morocco’s sovereignty and, whether in royal speeches or in different international fora, including the United Nations, it publicly urged Madrid to open a dialogue over their future. But unlike that period, the Moroccan government is now avoiding bringing this issue to the table, at least publicly, presumably until the time is ripe to address it again.
This has been apparent during the diplomatic crisis that occurred last summer between Spain and the United Kingdom over the Strait of Gibraltar. Whereas Spain redoubled its calls on the British government to open discussions over the UK’s colony on Spanish soil, Morocco chose to remain silent about Ceuta and Melilla.
This silence contrasts with Morocco’s traditional position, which has consisted of linking the future of Gibraltar with that of Ceuta and Melilla and in reminding Spain that it cannot reclaim the return of Gibraltar to its sovereignty while it denies Ceuta and Melilla’s return to Moroccan sovereignty.
Moreover, since 1987, when Morocco proposed the creation of a Task Force (Célula de reflexión) to address the future of Ceuta and Melilla, Morocco had always used the parallel between the two enclaves and Gibraltar to urge the Spanish government to accept the opening of discussions on their legal status.
In exchange for Rabat’s silence over Ceuta and Melilla, Spain has worked on adopting a positive neutrality on the Western Sahara issue, by tacitly supporting the autonomy plan presented by Morocco to the UN Security Council in 2007, and calling on the parties to the conflict to strive towards reaching a political and mutually acceptable resolution.
Furthermore, as a member of the so called Group of Friends of the Western Sahara (France, Russia, Spain, the UK, and the US), Spain was among the countries that played a significant role in convincing the U.S. to refrain from presenting to the Security Council in April 2013 a draft resolution that went against Morocco’s position. The draft resolution had proposed the expansion of the United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to include a human rights monitoring system.
In the upcoming years, Spain will play an important in the Western Sahara issue, especially because it is candidate for temporary membership in the Security Council for 2015-2016 and has a good chance of winning the seat. In that case, Morocco will be in need of Spanish support in the Security Council to push for a political resolution in line with Morocco’s interests and its historical rights, and to avoid any misstep that might hinder the political process and the achievement of a political solution.
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