A Productive Partnership:

Spain’s brief tenure as president of the Council of the EU—from the beginning of July through the end of December of this year—brings high hopes for resolving challenges that Madrid and Rabat both face, such as terrorist threats, violent separatist movements, migration, and development. This is especially important given ongoing economic and diplomatic rapprochement between Spain and Morocco. The latter has become a strategic partner for Spain following an April 2022 deal between the two countries. Morocco has also become a close partner of many other European countries over the past two years.

Benefits for Morocco

Rabat is closely eyeing several economic and political issues that could improve as a result of Spain’s presidency of the Council of the EU. Morocco could also play a larger role in Spain’s security. The spheres which could be affected by Spain’s new position including the following:

1. European support for Morocco’s Western Sahara proposal: Morocco is particularly interested in the Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU due to opportunities to garner broader EU support for Morocco’s Western Sahara proposal. Many European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and France have already backed the Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal to resolve the Western Sahara conflict.

However, Spain is rethinking its stance on this issue, given its interests with regard to maritime border demarcation and its Exclusive Economic Zone with Morocco in both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The Western Sahara proposal would have implications for Spanish territory in the Canaries, Ceuta, and Melilla.

Nevertheless, Spain will support the European stance on reaching a political consensus on the Western Sahara issue during its short-term presidency of the Council of the EU. This stance aligns with UN Security Council resolutions that support autonomous rule in the Western Sahara. It is clear that Morocco stands to gain politically from Spain’s presidency of the EU council.

2. Increased European financial and technical support for Morocco: Spain can push to increase EU member states’ financial and technical support for Morocco to further its own interests, especially as pertains to irregular migration to Europe. Europe provides Turkey with aid upwards of 3 billion USD per year, while Morocco receives only a fraction of that amount—around 200 million USD annually. Spain is aware of Morocco’s strategic importance, especially given current talks on maritime border demarcation, terrorism, and irregular migration. It could therefore direct EU funds to Morocco and contribute to Morocco’s efforts to offer citizenship to sub-Saharan African migrants. Providing these migrants with citizenship would require providing job opportunities and investing in expanded healthcare and educational services.

3. Enhanced European-Moroccan economic ties: Spain has been pragmatic in its support of the Moroccan initiative to resolve the Western Sahara issue. This pragmatism could also drive Spain to pursue expanded European-Moroccan economic relations, which are becoming increasingly important amidst trade, energy, and food supply challenges stemming from the war in Ukraine.

Madrid also understands the importance of Morocco in the context of the southwestern Mediterranean. Since 2012, Spain has been Morocco’s top trading partner. The volume of bilateral trade reached 17 billion euros in 2021, according to statements made by Karima Benyaich, Morocco’s ambassador to Spain, during the launch of the new Morocco-Spain Economic Council (CEMAES) in Madrid on 3 November 2022. During her speech, Benyaich indicated that Morocco was Spain’s third export destination outside the EU as well as Spain’s largest market in Africa.

4. European backing for the Moroccan-Nigerian gas pipeline: Spain’s presidency of the Council of the EU could enable it to direct European funds towards finishing a gas pipeline between Morocco and Nigeria and extending it to reach Europe. Morocco could seize this opportunity, especially since Algeria rejected a US request to increase its gas production to meet European needs as Europe seeks alternatives to Russian gas.

Morocco’s ambitions in utilizing Spain’s leadership position within the EU could enable Morocco to make progress with this Rabat-Abuja pipeline project. From a political and geopolitical perspective, it will link Morocco and sub-Saharan West Africa. This project constitutes part of Morocco’s efforts to become integrated into the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

5. Bolstering European support for Moroccan policies: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s trip to Rabat on 7 April 2022 reflected his country’s shifting stance on the Western Sahara. Sánchez’s visit came after Spain had backed Morocco’s Western Sahara Autonomy Proposal, describing it as the most realistic scenario for resolving the territorial dispute involving the former Spanish colony. This policy marked a shift from Spain’s traditional neutrality on the issue.

Spain has now dragged itself into the Moroccan-Algerian dispute on the Western Sahara. Algeria supplies one third of Spain’s gas needs, which enables the former to exert pressure on Madrid when needed. Until recently, Spain had hoped to increase its imports of Algerian gas in line with European policy to gradually move away from Russian gas. However, Spain’s presidency of the Council of the EU coupled with its bias towards Morocco on the Western Sahara could result in Europe also aligning with Morocco instead of Algeria, the key backer for the Polisario Front. 

In conclusion, it could be argued that Spain and Morocco are embarking on a new phase of cooperation in the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic. This region is the site of important international dynamics between Spain, the UK, the US, and Morocco. Morocco is key to Spain’s economic entry into the African market, while Madrid serves as Rabat’s main economic channel into Europe. Developing bilateral relations between Morocco and Spain could be mutually beneficial to both countries. The gas pipeline between Morocco and Nigeria adds a new strategic dimension to the Atlantic region. It also expands the region’s economic ties with Europe following successful collaboration between Spain and Morocco, which will only expand further under Spain’s presidency of the Council of the EU.