Only dialogue can allow Morocco and Spain to avoid the dangers of severing their ties. Geography does not permit Spain to remain limited to the extreme southern corner of Europe, without having an extension into Africa, while Morocco cannot allow itself to see no farther than its northern bank on the Mediterranean.
It is ironic that the two countries, which once pondered the idea of a continental link between Africa and Europe through Gibraltar, are headed for the kinds of hard-line stances that would make this project evaporate into thin air. It seems that it is the destiny of these relations to be always characterized by suspicion. Neither are the Spaniards certain that Rabat will not surprise them with a “master stroke” to achieve their withdrawal from the cities of Ceuta and Melilla ahead of time, nor are the Moroccans convinced that their relations with their neighbor Madrid have been purged of the problems of their past.
What is absent in this formula are not the calls to punish this or that side; these calls appear to have convincing justifications when dialogue is absent. Instead, what is lacking is the realism and self-restraint during periods of tension.
In the past, the mere request by Morocco to join Europe brought problems, for instance on its agricultural products, which were subjected to sabotage when Moroccan trucks attempted to cross Spanish territory, while the threat to suspend the coastal fishing agreement angered the Spanish fleet, which controls the lion’s share of the area’s maritime wealth.
Also in the past, Morocco’s request to demarcate regional maritime borders would spark controversy, since it would be incomplete without considering the coasts of Ceuta and Melilla, which Spain does not want to relinquish. Spain’s tendency to organize the residency status of Moroccan immigrants, meanwhile, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, also had a negative impact on bilateral relations. However, Rabat and Madrid have coexisted despite such difficulties.
But one does not have to dig up the entire history of wars and agreements, or contemplate the negative points while ignoring bright spots. Rabat once staked that Spanish democracy would help bring about a new chapter. The Spanish, too, believed that an emerging democracy on their southern flank would considerably help Madrid hog a bigger role in North Africa.
Once, relations between Morocco and Spain improved noticeably at the expense of France’s monopoly of commercial and economic dealings with Morocco; Spain went from a non-player to number two. Perhaps Rabat at the time wanted to end French tutelage, which had exceeded all limits. However, the current situation might indicate that Spain is seeking in turn to impose some kind of hegemony. The difference between the two is that France has offered something political in return that is reassuring, at least in terms of Paris’s support for Rabat’s stances on the Sahara conflict, while Spain is turning this into an instrument of pressure on Morocco.
Until recently, the conflict over positions of influence in North Africa would stabilize based on the balance of power between the United States and European countries, particularly France and Spain. However, the Americans have gone farther in wooing North African partners, as we have seen in the case of Libya and the countries of the Sub-Saharan Sahel. It seems that the Spanish and French are engaged in a battle outside their traditional spheres of influence, which means that the US is the number one beneficiary of these contradictions.
While it seems clear that the Americans are dusting off a plan for partnership that has not taken place with North African capitals, it will be difficult for the Europeans to remain in their positions, as disputes between Morocco and Spain move in a wider scope.