Cumbre España-Marruecos: Declaración de intenciones, pero pocas acciones

Spain-Morocco Summit: Declaration of intent, but little action


16 | 03 | 2023


The expected meeting did not open the new stage in the relations that the announced Spanish acceptance of the Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara would entail.

In the picture

The heads of government of Spain and Morocco, during the military honors at the Mohammed V airport in Rabat [Fernando Calvo].

Almost 8 years after the last High Level meeting between Spain and Morocco - a format conceived as annual but which had not been convened since June 2015 and had been postponed since December 2020 - a summit between the two countries was held in Rabat on February 1 and 2 with the participation of the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, and the Moroccan Prime Minister, Aziz Ajanuch, each accompanied by a dozen ministers. 

The High Level meeting (RAN) held between the Spanish and Moroccan heads of government in early February differed from the others in that it was the first after the radical change of Spanish position on the question of Western Sahara sovereignty, announced by Pedro Sanchez in March 2022, assuring that it would be "historic" and serve to mark a new stage in bilateral relations between Madrid and Rabat. However, despite expectations, not only are the 19 memoranda (and one protocol) signed at the February summit ambiguous or imprecise, but it is also impossible not to mention the absence of King Mohammed VI at the meeting. Even if it is argued that he had no reason to attend, since it was a government-to-government meeting , there is no denying the displeasure it represents, given the monarch's frequent and robust presence in the country's political affairs.

core topic Leaving these issues aside, this article analyzes the most controversial topics of the summit, such as the various areas of cooperation, the opening of customs, the Western Sahara issue and, finally, the consequences to be expected from the RAN. 

Sector cooperation

The 19 agreements of understanding and the financial protocol subscribed in the RAN have as goal to reinforce cooperation in areas such as management of water, environment, agriculture, Education and culture, or transport and infrastructures. The Government aspires to make Spain the first commercial partner of the Alawi kingdom and that the improvement in relations will help Spanish companies to win important public works contracts in Morocco. Another area of special interest that comes out of the RAN strengthened is the control of migratory flows, although the new joint measures announced in the documents have not been specified.

This ambiguity is explained by the very nature of a memorandum, which is nothing more than a written document signed by the representatives of two or more entities, containing declarations of intent to act with a common goal , without legally committing any of the parties. In other words, they are general principles of action that guide the relationship between the parties, without establishing obligations. An element core topic to be taken into account.


Despite the fact that the statement issued by Moncloa after the summit mentions that the "process of gradual and orderly opening of commercial customs in Ceuta and Melilla" has been agreed upon, neither of them is yet operational. Moreover, it should be noted that none of the 74 points of the Joint Spanish-Moroccan Declarationdetermines a specific date for the opening of customs; only point 42 makes reference letter the commitment of both parties to "the full normalization of the movement of people and goods in an orderly manner". In fact, the text does not mention the words "customs" or "border" to refer to the boundary between the two Spanish enclaves and the Moroccan territory, which, if it did, would imply an implicit recognition of Spanish sovereignty over them. On the other hand, the aforementioned point 42 also speaks of "a timetable agreed with Morocco" for this normalization of circulation. A timetable that, officially, is secret for security reasons, although there are sources that consider that the lack of definition, in reality hides the lack of agreement between the general directorates of customs of both countries, which would continue negotiating to reach one satisfactory to both parts. Likewise, through the official Moroccan press, it is deduced that Rabat is planning atypical customs, with strong restrictions.

In the meantime agreement, Morocco is ceasing to apply the "travelers regime" included in its customs regulations, raising a problem that has not been addressed at the summit, and which has been omitted in the joint statement. Morocco's unilateral decision not to apply this regime means that neither Moroccans returning to their country from the Spanish autonomous cities, nor Melilla and Ceuta citizens going from visit to Morocco, can cross the border with small purchases for their use staff or gifts for relatives.

Spanish sovereignty and Western Sahara

Although the sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla are obviated in the joint declaration, in point 8 of it "Spain reiterates the position expressed in the Joint Declaration adopted on April 7, 2022", which recognized that the Moroccan proposal of an autonomy for Western Sahara constituted "the most serious, realistic and credible basis" to resolve the conflict. That is to say: the recognition that Spain, implicitly, makes of the sovereignty rights that Morocco would have over Western Sahara, is not compensated by one, symmetrical, in which Morocco would recognize the Spanish sovereignty over the two autonomous communities. As in the case of customs, this question remains up in the air.

On the Saharawi question, in his joint appearance with his Spanish counterpart, Aziz Ajanuch not only praised the change in the Spanish position on the Sahara, but urged Sanchez to "redouble joint efforts" to fight in various fields, among which he cited "separatist groups and armed militias", in a clear reference letter to the Polisario Front.

Ajanuch's words show that Morocco is not going to be satisfied with Sanchez's letter, but wants its Spanish neighbor to increase diplomatic support for its pretensions. Rabat knows that it will not offer him a military financial aid , but it does press for the transfer, for example, of the control of the airspace of Western Sahara, which, to a large extent, is exercised from Gran Canaria. Consequently, the president of Nueva Canarias (NC), Román Rodríguez has qualified this summit as a "failure", and Morocco's intentions, as expansionist, accusing at the same time the Spanish Government of being submissive, and of basing the framework of good neighborly relations on "unilateral and blackmailing facts" of the King and the Moroccan Government.

On the other hand, Ajanuch's insinuation to Sanchez will probably cause some stir in the minority sector of the government coalition whose ministers did not want to accompany the president to Rabat so as not to give the impression of supporting his radical change of position on the Sahara.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing the establishment of a reinforced dialogue mechanism between both countries, based on mutual respect, whose goal is "to avoid everything that we know offends the other party, especially in what affects our respective spheres of sovereignty". The question is whether this mechanism reinforces the idea that the Government of Pedro Sanchez is willing to accept that Morocco does not openly recognize the Spanish sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla.

Consequences: Maghreb and Europe

When on March 18 last year Moncloa announced that Rabat's autonomy proposal was the "most serious, realistic and credible", Algeria 's reaction was not long in coming: Algiers suspended the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation that the two States had signed in 2002, and the following day a boycott of Spanish companies and products in the Maghreb country came into force, which has continued to this day. In addition, in the midst of an energy crisis caused by the war between Russia and Ukraine, Algiers has announced that, from now on, Italy will be its priority partner for the export of gas to Europe.

Still on the international scene, the establishment of this new framework of relations between Spain and Morocco is affecting the image of Spain in the EU. One of the points on which the delegations of both parties have insisted the most is that Spain should act as a bridge to Europe and Morocco as a bridge to Africa for the other party. Just before the RAN, the PSOE, Spain's governing party, voted against a European Parliament resolution condemning human rights violations in Morocco, in a move that was widely criticized both nationally and by its European partners. Therefore, it would not be strange that Spain would start to apply, in a more active way than before, a role as mediator between the EU and the Maghreb country, although if it continues to be under these patterns, it could cost its reputation. 

Finally, the consequences of the new relations established by Spain with its southern neighbor are creating conflict within the country itself. Apart from the misgivings of the Canary Islands and the internal division of the Government (which together with the civil service examination completely dissociates itself from this new position) businessmen have expressed their clear dissatisfaction, as has the rest of Spanish public opinion. In addition, Ceuta could see its desire to join the committee of the EU regions (an issue on which it has been insisting to the Spanish Government for some time) harmed, since if it were to succeed in joining this consultative body, the European character of the city would be strengthened, which would surely displease the Moroccan authorities.

At final, the publication of a document that Moncloa described as "historic" or "unprecedented" has result been, for all of the above, a superficial, ambiguous statement without concrete actions. A summit that was supposed to stage a turning point in the bilateral relations of both countries and dominated by mere declarations seems to have caused more problems and conflicts than those that already existed due to its consequences. It is evident, moreover, that this new position has had a great impact both at the national level and in the International Office with Algeria in the midst of the struggle against Morocco for regional hegemony, as well as with respect to the European Union.

Although this summit concluded with a joint declaration, all these reasons indicate that it is a declaration of intentions, rather than concrete measures of assured compliance; for a future in which it seems that diplomatic relations between Spain and Morocco will have an important influence in the region.