Spain and Morocco seek to restore an irritable relationship at the Rabat summit

  • Spain and Morocco hold their first summit in eight years
  • Long strained relations over illegal immigration issue
  • Up to 20 trade and investment agreements 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 mend a relationship marred by frequent disputes over 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 to a commitment to mutual respect, whereby in our discourse and in our political practice we will avoid everything that we know offends the other party, especially with regard to our respective spheres of sovereignty,” Sánchez said.

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.

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Morocco refuses to recognize Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, but last year both countries agreed to open the first customs control point in Ceuta.

Madrid says that reflects Rabat’s recognition of the enclaves as foreign territory, but Morocco has not made any public statement indicating it has changed its long-standing position that the enclaves should be part of its territory.

Sánchez restored cordial relations with Rabat in March 2022 after reversing the former Spanish colonial master’s four-decade policy on Western Sahara by backing Morocco’s proposal to create an autonomous region.

Forging peace between the neighbors has forced Sánchez’s socialists into uncomfortable positions.

Last month, its MEPs voted against a resolution in the European Parliament calling on Morocco to improve its press freedom record. MEP Juan Fernando López said this week that maintaining cordial neighborly relations sometimes meant “swallowing a toad”.

Spain’s turn in Western Sahara drew the ire of Algeria, a Polisario Front ally, which has suspended trade with Spain and warned it could cut off the flow of natural gas even as it forges closer gas ties with Italy.

Spanish exports to Algeria fell 41% to 1 billion euros (1.09 billion dollars) in the period January-November 2022 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 hopes to get a significant part of the 45 billion euros that Morocco is expected to invest by 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.

The state railway operators Renfe and Adif are working with their Moroccan counterpart to develop new train lines, which could mean 6,000 million 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 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 dispute, but did not refer to an agreement to set aside all disputes of sovereignty.

A joint declaration made no mention of 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 improving relations with the bloc.

Both countries agreed to cooperate in the repatriation of illegal immigrants.

($1 = 0.9168 euros)

Reporting 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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