Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez traveled to Rabat on Wednesday with 12 ministers ahead of a meeting with Moroccan government officials as part of the European country’s strategy to improve historically complicated relations with its neighbor across the Strait of Gibraltar.
The visit comes 10 months after Sanchez went to meet Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and ended a diplomatic crisis that erupted in 2021 over Morocco’s disputed Western Sahara territory. During that meeting, Sanchez announced a “new phase of bilateral relations” with Morocco, an important partner of the European Union in fighting extremism and supporting the bloc’s policies on illegal migration.
Sanchez flies south again on Wednesday and will attend a forum of business leaders from both countries in Rabat. On Thursday, he will sit down with Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Ahanouk, a billionaire businessman who won election in 2021 and is considered close to Mohammed VI.
Sanchez’s agenda does not include another meeting with the Moroccan king, with whom he shared an iftar to break the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last April at the most important point of their reconciliation.
Sánchez’s office said the prime minister instead held a telephone conversation with the monarch in which they agreed the meeting would “contribute to the consolidation of this new era in relations between Morocco and Spain.” He added that Sanchez had accepted the king’s invitation to make another official visit to Rabat on an unspecified date.
SPANISH COURT ACCUSES 74-YEAR-OLD OF TERRORISM FOR SENDING EXPLOSIVE MATERIAL TO THE COUNTRY’S PRIME MINISTER
Moroccans make up Spain’s largest foreign community, with 800,000 residents, and important economic ties unite the neighbors, who are separated by just 8 miles of water at their closest point.
But relations between Spain and Morocco were seriously soured in May 2021 after Spain allowed the leader of the Fronta Polisario, which is waging a low-intensity armed insurgency seeking independence for Western Sahara from Morocco, to receive medical treatment for COVID- 19 in Spain.
Morocco responded by easing its border controls around Spain’s North African exclave of Ceuta, and thousands of people crossed into the city. Tensions remained high until Sanchez reversed Spain’s long-standing position on Western Sahara by backing Rabat’s proposal to give it more autonomy as long as it remained undeniably under Moroccan control. Madrid says the people of Western Sahara should decide their future through a referendum.
Sanchez paid a high price for his approach to Morocco.
His move to Western Sahara angered Algeria, a supporter of the Fronta Polisario and a major supplier of natural gas to Spain. It was also widely criticized in Spain, which held Western Sahara as a colony until 1975, and caused friction in Spain’s ruling left-wing coalition between Sánchez’s Socialists and her junior partner. Politicians across the Spanish spectrum saw Sánchez as a traitor to the Saharan people of Western Sahara for very little tangible gain in return.
Sanchez is now looking to reap some benefits from last year’s return to diplomatic normalcy.
SPAIN WILL AVOID MANDATORY MASK RULE ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN FEBRUARY. 7
This will be the first meeting since 2015 with such a large delegation of ministries. Sánchez is taking with him his ministers responsible for the economy, energy, foreign affairs, security and police, agriculture, trade, transport and migration, among others.
Thursday’s intergovernmental meeting is expected to produce several agreements between ministries and favor business growth, including the opening of customs offices at border crossings for Ceuta and its sister exclave Melilla, which Morocco has never officially recognized as Spanish territories. Melilla’s customs was closed by Morocco in 2018, while Ceuta never had one.
Spain is the largest foreign investor in Morocco, accounting for a significant portion of all foreign investment, making economic cooperation a top priority for the Moroccan government. Morocco is Spain’s third most important trading partner outside the EU after the United States and Great Britain.
CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP
Morocco, like Turkey and other North African countries, has reaped economic benefits from the EU in exchange for curbing illegal immigration to Spain. However, this has not stopped thousands of migrants and refugees, including young Moroccans seeking a better future in Europe, from attempting to cross the Mediterranean or the perilous journey across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands.
The border police methods of both Spain and Morocco have come under intense scrutiny after the deaths of at least 23 African men, many of them Sudanese refugees, when they stormed a border fence in Melilla in June.
Human rights group Amnesty International staged a protest outside the Spanish government headquarters in Madrid on Wednesday with cut-out silhouettes of the victims of the Melilla tragedy. The rights group raised the death toll to 37 and said another 77 people were still missing in the incident.
“Today’s summit between Morocco and Spain pretends to ignore what happened just seven months ago,” said Esteban Beltrán, head of Amnesty International in Spain. “We want to remember that (the victims) are with us and we want to remember the suffering of their families who have no information or real investigation into what happened.”