- Spain and Morocco hold their first summit in eight years
- Relations long strained by the problem of illegal migration
- Up to 20 agreements on trade and investment are expected to be signed.
RABAT, Feb 2 (Reuters) – Spain and Morocco have agreed to put aside their differences, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Thursday, as they seek to repair a relationship marked by frequent disputes about migration and territory.
Sánchez was speaking at a summit in Rabat where the two countries signed up to 20 agreements to boost trade and investment, including credit lines of up to 800 million euros ($873 million).
“We have agreed on a commitment of mutual respect, whereby in our speech and in our political practice we will avoid everything that we know offends the other party, especially in our respective areas of sovereignty,” said Sánchez.
There have been periodic diplomatic crises over Spain’s enclaves in Africa, Morocco’s dispute with rebels over Western Sahara and the arrival of thousands of illegal immigrants to Spain each year through Morocco.
Morocco refuses to recognize Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, but last year the two countries agreed to open the first customs checkpoint in Ceuta.
Madrid says that reflects Rabat’s recognition of the enclaves as foreign territory, but Morocco has made no public statement indicating that its long-standing stance that the enclaves should be part of its territory has changed.
Sánchez reestablished cordial relations with Rabat in March 2022 after reversing former colonial master Spain’s four-decade policy in Western Sahara by backing Morocco’s proposal to create an autonomous region.
Forging peace between neighbors has forced Sánchez’s socialists to adopt some uncomfortable positions.
Last month, its MEPs voted against a European Parliament resolution calling on Morocco to improve its record on press freedom. MEP Juan Fernando López stated this week that maintaining cordial neighborly relations sometimes involved “swallowing a frog.”
Spain’s U-turn on Western Sahara drew the ire of Algeria, an ally of the Polisario Front, which suspended trade with Spain and warned it could cut off the flow of natural gas even as it forges tighter gas ties with Italy.
Spanish exports to Algeria fell 41% to one billion euros ($1.09 billion) in the January-November 2022 period compared to the previous year, according to the Ministry of Industry. Its exports to Morocco increased by 27% to 10.8 billion euros in the same period.
Spain expects to receive a significant part of the 45 billion euros that Morocco is expected to invest until 2050 in improving infrastructure, a Spanish government source said.
Spanish companies are well positioned to win concessions in key sectors of Rabat’s development plan, such as water, sanitation and renewable energy, the person said.
State railway operators Renfe and Adif are working with their Moroccan counterpart to develop new railway lines, which could mean 6 billion euros of business.
Spain is discussing how to remove Morocco from a gray list of countries that launder money, another government source said. A delegation from the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based global anti-money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, visited Morocco last month and is expected to announce later this month its decision on whether Morocco can be removed from the list.
On Thursday in Rabat, Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch expressed his satisfaction with Spain’s support for Morocco’s autonomy plan as the “most credible solution” to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, but made no reference to an agreement to put aside all sovereignty disputes.
A joint statement did not mention Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, although it reiterated Spain’s new position on Western Sahara. Morocco said it hoped Spain’s upcoming presidency of the European Union would mean it could act as a conduit for better relations with the bloc.
Both countries agreed to cooperate in the repatriation of illegal immigrants.
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Information by Belén Carreño and Ahmed Eljechtimi; Written by Charlie Devereux; Editing by Gareth Jones, Aislinn Laing, Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis
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