Despite sustained internal pressure to pick a fight with Morocco, Spain has until recently opted for pragmatist, diplomatic tone and moves.
Rabat – Morocco has responded in kind to Spain’s imposition of a “fuel franchise” on Moroccan carriers to the European country.
Over the weekend, authorities at Morocco’s Tangier Med Port announced Spanish truckers will now have to present “cooperation agreements” for exemption from Rabat’s riposte to Madrid’s restrictions on Moroccan transporters.
“Please note that from October 27 loaded semi-trailers originating from Spain will be subject to the control required by the Ministry of Equipment, Transport and Logistics on the basis of cooperation agreements,” read Tangier Med’s statement.
This means that “entry into Moroccan territory will be prohibited to any company that does not have a contract of cooperation with a Moroccan company.”
Recent weeks’ right-wing pressure on the Spanish government for more assertive policy towards Morocco seems to have finally borne fruit with Madrid’s restrictions on Moroccan exports.
Under the Spanish “fuel franchise,” Moroccan truckers should not fuel beyond 200 liters in reserve when traveling to Spain. Upon arriving at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Moroccan carriers must then refuel by at least 1,200 liters to be able to enter Spain.
While the restriction is set to boost the revenues of Spanish fuel sellers at the Morocco-Spain border, it constitutes a heavy financial toll on Moroccan truckers. In addition, the new measure requires Moroccan truckers who go beyond the 200-liter threshold to pay a penalty ranging between €200-€700.
As Spain’s fuel is far more expensive than Morocco’s, Madrid’s “fuel franchise” is also a direct and immediate blow to the competitiveness of Moroccan products on the European market.
Morocco’s response means that many Spanish companies will be unable to enter the country, and will therefore rely on Moroccan trucks to carry their goods into Morocco. This would offset the extra cost Moroccan truckers would incur by purchasing fuel from Spain.
Calls to boycott Morocco
The “fuel franchise” play dates back to 1992, when Rabat and Madrid were engaged in what some have dubbed an “economic war.”
As their trade volumes and socio-cultural exchanges intensified in the following years, however, the two kingdoms gave up on the “fuel franchise” card. They pledged instead to intensify their “multidimensional cooperation,” as recently evidenced in their shared desire to implement a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
But the recent months have seen noticeable campaigns in Spain to boycott Morocco or at least review the “special” status of the wide-ranging Rabat-Madrid cooperation. The calls have come from both sides of the Spanish political spectrum, especially from its radical fringes.
Left-leaning Podemos has resorted to the pro-Polisario camp’s traditional “occupation” and “human rights violations” card to convince Madrid to lash out at Rabat. Meanwhile, far-right parties and newspapers have decried what they see as Morocco’s incomprehensibly punitive and ill-intentioned restrictions on Ceuta and Melilla.
Last June, Morocco adopted anti-smuggling measures to limit the economic hemorrhage that informal exchanges between the enclaves and northern Morocco inflict on the North African country.
In response, a number of Spanish newspapers and right-wing politicians accused Rabat of “emptying” the Spanish enclaves of indispensable economic assets to eventually compel them to bow down to Moroccan “annexation.”
“We demand that the government clarify whether it plans to give into pressure from Morocco and allow Ceuta and Melilla to become an annex of the neighboring country,” said a delegate for Vox, a far-right political party.
Bump in the road?
Despite sustained internal pressure, mainly from the radical fringes of its political scene, Spain has until recently adopted a pragmatist, diplomatic tone and moves when dealing with Morocco. Successive Spanish governments have repeatedly described Morocco as a “good neighbor” and an “indispensable ally.”
In Rabat, meanwhile, the prevailing mood has oscillated between shock and caution. Given that Morocco holds enormous sway over its Spanish neighbor — the crucial fisheries and border security agreements, for example — Spain’s “fuel franchise” move initially shocked many in Moroccan policy circles.
They queried about what may have suddenly caused Spain to play a 28-year-old card which, based on its official stance on Morocco, it appeared to have definitively buried.
The relatively delayed — and largely measured — response to the initial shock demonstrated the understanding that a quick, harsh reaction could visibly worsen a tense situation.
In this sense, Morocco’s imposition of “cooperation contracts” on Spanish transport companies comes across as a measured counter-measure to make space for dialogue as soon as Madrid realizes what it seems to have lost sight of: How important its “good” Moroccan neighbor is to its economy.
After all, the Spanish government has time and again withstood internal pressure to pick a fight with Morocco.
Most recently, when Morocco reviewed its maritime borders, the Spanish media went berserk, urging Madrid to give Rabat a muscular, militarized lesson on neighborliness. In response, the Spanish government opted for dialogue, recalling its “excellent relations” with Morocco.
Amid signs of trouble with a traditionally strong ally to Morocco, the understanding in Rabat is that Spain often uses its “fuel franchise” to make a tempered statement in times of tension.
Given that Morocco has responded in kind, the expectation on both sides is that the temporary escalations will eventually lay the groundwork for discussions and a return to normalcy.
While this particular course of action is not given or a foregone conclusion — nothing is in geopolitics — any other course would be unprecedented.