In Morocco, Spain PM reinforces ties after crisis

#Morocco #Spain #reinforces #ties #crisis

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited Rabat on Thursday to reset his country’s “strategic partnership” with Morocco despite criticism from within his own left-wing government about caving in to Moroccan pressure.

At the talks, both sides agreed to show mutual respect, particularly in regards to matters of sovereignty. 

“We are going to avoid anything that may offend the other, especially with regard to our respective spheres of sovereignty,” Sanchez said after he and a dozen ministers met Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch.

It was the first such high-level meeting since 2015.

“Today we are consolidating a new stage in relations between Morocco and Spain,” Sanchez said, insisting that there was “enormous unexplored potential” between the two nations. 

“Moroccan-Spanish relations have never reached this level of cooperation and coordination,” added Akhannouch.

The visit comes less than a year after the Spanish leader drew a line under a year-long diplomatic crisis by reversing decades of neutrality on the Western Sahara conflict to back Morocco’s position.

But the concession to Morocco has drawn harsh criticism from across the Spanish political spectrum. 

Sanchez’s number 3 in government, Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz — a member of the hard-left Podemos — declined to join the visit in line with her party’s rejection of Sanchez’s U-turn on the Western Sahara.

The right wing has also denounced Sanchez, with Esteban Gonzalez Pons of the opposition Popular Party saying there was “no greater humiliation than bowing to the will of Morocco”.

But Sanchez has defended the move as essential for Spanish interests, calling Thursday for new investments in Morocco, where his country is already the third-biggest foreign investor.

– No meeting with king –

Around 20 deals were signed on Thursday to bolster Spanish investments in areas including renewable energy to education, as well as doubling Spanish state support for firms setting up projects in Morocco.

Both countries said they were progressing in preparations to open customs offices in Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s two North African enclaves, but neither was mentioned explicitly in the final text summarising the meeting, nor was an opening date given. 

The enclaves have long been a magnet for people fleeing violence and poverty across Africa and seeking refuge via the continent’s only land borders with European Union territory.

Western Sahara was mentioned in the final document, with Spain ratifying its support for Rabat’s plan of limited autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty, as announced in March last year. 

The diplomatic crisis began in 2021 when Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front that seeks independence for Western Sahara, was treated for Covid-19 in a Spanish hospital, angering Rabat.

Weeks later, more than 10,000 migrants surged into Ceuta as Moroccan border forces looked the other way, in what was widely seen as a punitive move by Rabat. 

The standoff ended in March 2022 when Sanchez agreed to back Rabat’s plan of limited autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. A month later, he visited Morocco and was hosted by King Mohammed VI.

This time, he was not hosted by the king, prompting further criticism at home, with the conservative El Mundo daily saying the Moroccan monarch had “shown his position of strength by standing Sanchez up”.

However, the king did invite Sanchez for a higher-profile state visit soon, which Sanchez said he had “accepted with pleasure”. 

Cooperation over clandestine migration and terrorism was high on Sanchez’s agenda, with Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska expected to ask Rabat to ensure migrant deportations return to pre-Covid levels, his office said.

Since patching up ties, irregular migrant arrivals from Morocco last year fell by a quarter from the levels of 2021, interior ministry figures show. 

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