New York - With the approach of Spain’s legislative elections, Moroccan and foreign observers are asking whether there will be a shift in Madrid’s foreign policy towards Morocco in the event that the two principal political parties fail to win a majority to form a government. With uncertainty hovering over the prospects of the Popular Party and the Socialist Party (PSOE), there is a concern that a new political party known as “Podemos” (meaning, we can), whose popularity has been on the rise in recent months, will win Sunday’s elections.
New York – With the approach of Spain’s legislative elections, Moroccan and foreign observers are asking whether there will be a shift in Madrid’s foreign policy towards Morocco in the event that the two principal political parties fail to win a majority to form a government. With uncertainty hovering over the prospects of the Popular Party and the Socialist Party (PSOE), there is a concern that a new political party known as “Podemos” (meaning, we can), whose popularity has been on the rise in recent months, will win Sunday’s elections.
Moroccan observer’s apprehension that the new party might win the elections stems from the hostile position of “Podemos” towards Morocco with respect to the Western Sahara dispute. Podemos’ leaders have made a number of statements in which they have expressed their support for the Polisario and the establishment of an independent state in the territory. The question that arises is whether “Podemos”, if it wins the elections, will continue its vocal support for the Polisario, thus putting in jeopardy the common strategic interests of Morocco and Spain and the strength of their bilateral relations?
For the answer, it is necessary to look at the political parties that have governed Spain since the establishment of its constitutional democracy in 1975, and their positions on this issue.
Socialist Party Leaders Shift from Defending Polisario to Adopting Friendly Position Toward Morocco
From before 1975 when it led the opposition to Franco’s regime, and during the three governments that came to power after the death of Franco until 1981, the Socialist Party position was fully supportive of the thesis of the Polisario. In line with its leftist ideology, the Socialist Party was among the fierce defenders of the right of the Saharawis to exercise self-determination and the establishment of an independent state in the Sahara, and during the election campaign it led at the time, it expressed its support for the Polisario.
However, immediately after it took over the reins of government after the 1982 legislative elections, the Socialist Party began to gradually soften its positions toward Morocco. The Socialist Party prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, even established a new tradition in the relations between Morocco and Spain such that Morocco became the first country visited by any new Spanish prime minister after his election.
The Socialist Party leaders could not adopt a different approach, especially in light of the interdependence of economic and security interests of the two countries, and in light of a few thorny issues, especially the question of which country owns Ceuta and Melilla and disputes over fishing rights. With the passage of time and the ascendance of other strategic interests, the Socialist Party modified its position from being a fierce defender of the creation of an independent state in the Sahara to adopting the principle of positive neutrality, with the ultimate goal of not jeopardizing the common strategic interests between the two countries. Felipe González and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, both former leaders of the Socialist Party and former prime ministers of Spain, became friends of Morocco and the most vocal supporters of the Moroccan autonomy plan for the Sahara presented to the Security Council in 2007.
Popular Party Follows in Footsteps of Socialist Party
In a similar transformation to the Socialist Party the Popular Party (PP), in 2011 after maintaining anti-Moroccan positions for years, especially during the two terms of former Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, moderated its hostile tone toward Morocco immediately following the inauguration of the outgoing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
In the months prior to the 2011 parliamentary elections, many observers expressed the fear that the relations between Morocco and Spain would be marked by the same level of tension as when Aznar headed the Spanish government from 1996 to 2004.
However, it did not take much time for Rajoy to realize that Morocco has become a central feature of Spain’s domestic and foreign policy. Accordingly, he adopted the same approach followed by his predecessor Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and strove to strengthen the relations between the two countries.
Contrary to the predictions of some observers, since then the Spanish government has not taken any position hostile to Morocco on the Sahara issue. Rather, it has followed the same positive neutrality policy adopted by the governments of Felipe Gonzalez and Rodriguez Zapatero. Additionally, within the Group of Friends of Western Sahara, which includes Spain, France, the United States, Britain and Russia, Madrid is believed to have played an important role in convincing the United States to change the language of the draft resolution it presented to the Security Council in April 2013, which sought to expand the prerogatives of MINURSO to include the monitoring of human rights in the Sahara.
Over the years, Moroccan-Spanish relations have reached an advanced stage of maturity that makes them relatively immune from political changes in Spain. In other words, no matter which party holds power in the Iberian country, Spain’s primary foreign policy objective is to maintain and further enhance strong relations with Morocco.
Ascending to Power Will Force “Podemos” to Soften Anti-Morocco Positions
Likewise, if “Podemos” wins the majority to form a new government, the party’s leaders undoubtedly will soon realize the difference between being an opposition party and being at the helm of the government. Given the strong relations between Morocco and Spain and their interdependence in several vital sectors, it is unlikely that Podemos will continue to support the Polisario from within the Spanish government.
As was the case with the traditional parties, “Podemos” is not expected to adopt positions that are hostile to Morocco. The reality of the relations between the two countries and the role Morocco has come to play during the last ten years in many areas of utmost importance for Spain will lead the party to avoid making any decisions that would cause a diplomatic crisis between Rabat and Madrid.
In addition to the economic relations between the two countries, especially the importance of the Moroccan market for the Spanish economy and the fact that Morocco is Spain’s first customer in Africa and in the Arab world, Rabat has become a strategic and inescapable partner in Madrid’s security policy. There is an unanimity among observers that Morocco has become a fundamental building block in Spain’s policy to combat irregular migration coming from sub-Saharan Africa.
This role increased following the formation of the government of former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2004. This change in the Spanish government coincided with a significant improvement in relations between the two neighbors, which materialized in the promotion of security cooperation between them in the fight against irregular migration, organized crime, and terrorism.
One of the indicators of this improvement was Morocco’s decision to tighten the control of its sea and land borders with Spain. This policy resulted in an unprecedented decline in the number of undocumented migrants seeking to arrive in Spain. One of the most important reasons behind the success of the Spanish government over the past decade in dealing effectively with the phenomenon of irregular immigration is the serious cooperation of the Moroccan government and its mobilization of consequential human resources to that effect.
In addition to its pivotal role in addressing irregular immigration, Morocco plays a more important role in the fight against extremism and terrorism. Since the terrorist attacks that shook Madrid on March 11, 2004, the two countries have striven to strengthen their cooperation in the security field. This cooperation has materialized in the exchange of visits at the highest level between the two countries and in the exchange of information between their intelligence services. This cooperation has contributed to the dismantlement of many terrorist cells both in Spain or in Morocco, and in thwarting a significant number of potential terrorist attacks.
With the growing threat of terrorism as a result of the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), this cooperation has taken on another dimension. Especially after it became clear that a significant proportion of Moroccans sympathizers with ISIS came from northern Morocco, while others came from the enclave of Ceuta, this mutual cooperation has led to the dismantling of six terrorist cells in Spain during the period between 2013-2014.
The best evidence of the central importance Morocco plays in helping Spain to fight extremism and terrorism, are the recommendations made by the Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano to the Spanish government to maintain cooperation with Morocco, which it considers of “great importance for Spain.”
Morocco’s pioneering role in the fight against terrorism has grown at the regional and global levels. Morocco’s importance in this regard both for Spain and the rest of the European Union was on display in the aftermaths of the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris on November 13, especially when Moroccan intelligence services helped French authorities identify the whereabouts of Abdul Hamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the attacks.
In short, all of these factors will drive any newcomer to the Spanish presidential palace to avoid taking any steps that might adversely affect the good relations between the two countries. While Morocco is regarded as one of the cornerstones of Spain’s strategy to address irregular migration and fight terrorism, territorial integrity is an existential matter for Morocco, as King Mohammed V pointed out in his speech on the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Green March.
Consequently, any reckless decisions made by “Podemos” in the unlikely event it wins the elections, may force Rabat to reconsider its cooperation with Spain in the areas of immigration and terrorism. Spain is aware that the success of its strategy in these areas depends largely on Morocco’s cooperation and goodwill. Thus, any Moroccan decision to halt its cooperation with Spain, could pose a threat to the latter’s national security.
A poignant case in point is when the Spanish Guardia Civil stopped and searched the yacht carrying Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in the waters near Ceuta and Melilla in August 2014. At the time, Morocco did not formally protest the detention and search of the royal yacht to the Spanish authorities. Instead, it used one of the means of leverage it has with Spain. A few days later, Rabat turned a blind eye to the hundreds of immigrants who sailed illegally to Spain. The move led to an alarming increase in the number of irregular migrants arriving in the Spanish coast. Within two days (August 11 and 12, 2014) at least 1,409 irregular immigrants had reached the Spanish coast. This number represented 60 percent of the undocumented immigrants who arrived in Spain during the first quarter of the same year, which was no more than 2,500 people. This sudden increase prompted Spanish authorities to request the help their Moroccan counterparts.
Given the history, it seems unlikely that “Podemos” would undertake any measures that might jeopardize Spain’s strategic relations with Morocco merely for the sake of maintaining support for the Polisario. The Spanish people have concerns that go well beyond the sympathy that this party might feel towards the leaders of the Polisario: Living in security, providing jobs to the unemployed, dealing effectively with the phenomenon of irregular immigration and fighting terrorism are among the main concerns of the people of Spain. For the new Spanish government to address these concerns and others, it will need to maintain good relations with Morocco.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him@Samir Bennis
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission