Spain/Morocco: the epicentre of the crisis


The governments of Spain and Morocco's partner or allied countries continue to be surprised by the persistence of the bilateral crisis between Madrid and Rabat. Intelligence services and international observers are unable to discern the root of the disagreement between the two countries, which is becoming stubbornly entrenched. Only the two main protagonists, Spanish President Pedro Sánchez and Moroccan King Mohammed VI, know the root causes and where the epicentre of the crisis lies.

The efforts of Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares, who never misses an opportunity to beg the Moroccan government to put an end to the crisis, to send Ambassador Karima Benyaich back to Madrid, to meet officially with his counterpart Nacer Burita, and to turn the page, are striking. All to no avail.

Spanish gestures laden with symbolism and good intentions, such as those of King Felipe VI who visited the Moroccan stand at the Tourism Fair in Madrid accompanied by Queen Letizia, as well as President Sánchez's repeated phrases about 'historic relations', 'good neighbourliness', 'strategic alliance' and so on, have not been of much use either. The crisis persists.

To try to understand what is behind the bilateral anger, with large doses of anger and indignation on both sides, one has to go back to last August, when on the occasion of the King and People's Revolution Festival, commemorating the nationalist insurgency against the deportation to Madagascar of Sultan Mohammed V by the French colonial authorities, King Mohamed VI in his speech solemnly proclaimed his intention to "inaugurate an unprecedented stage" in relations between Morocco and Spain, which should be based, the monarch said, "on trust, transparency, mutual consideration and respect for commitments".

After these words, everyone expected the crisis to be resolved, or at least channelled, and a return to normality, but it was not. What has happened in the five months since Mohammed VI's speech?

The Alawi ruler's statement contains at least two points that should be noted. The first was the announcement that Morocco and Spain were set to inaugurate "an unprecedented stage" in their relations, that is, one never seen before in bilateral history; a stage that would surprise everyone, and which promised great joint projects. But for this "new era" to come into effect, the second point was fundamental: that "commitments be respected". 

What commitments was the Moroccan king referring to? Who had made the commitments, and to what?  Did these commitments concern only the Spanish side, or both? Since then, neither the Alawite monarch nor the Spanish president has given any clue as to how to clarify the matter.

There are some diplomats, especially on the Moroccan side, who think that there was indeed a commitment by Spain to do something, which has not been done. When Mohammed VI spoke of an "unprecedented stage", it was not an offer he was making, but a response to a Spanish proposal or declaration of intent. If these commitments have not been respected, they say, there is no reason to consider the crisis over.

Those familiar with Alawi idiosyncrasies believe that the Moroccan King would not have used the terms he did in his speech if he had not received a promise from the Spanish side that something would be done, which, moreover, can only have to do with the decolonisation of the Sahara. And that promise could only come from the Spanish president, who has the power to fulfil it. Neither the foreign minister, nor the head of the Opposition, nor even King Felipe VI, can make a promise that can only be fulfilled by the prime minister given his constitutional prerogatives.

This interpretation of how the crisis has continued despite the Moroccan king's outstretched hand suggests that Rabat was sure that Spain had a firm agreement to launch an initiative, which has not materialised. The Moroccan sovereign cannot speak of something "unprecedented" without having a solid basis for it, because it compromises the prestige of the institution and his own.

Of the hypothetical Spanish promise, there is only speculation. It is clear that, if there was one, it can only come from Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez himself. The Moroccan king does not trust the promises of any subordinate.

In Morocco's history over the last century, Moroccan sultans and kings have only signed agreements with kings and heads of state.  With Spain, too. Mohammed V and Hassan II had the Spanish head of state, General Franco, as their interlocutor. After Franco's death, Hassan II accepted Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González, and in part his successor José María Aznar, as direct interlocutors with the acquiescence of King Juan Carlos. This was the exception to the rule: the Moroccan king only dealt directly with the presidents of France and the United States, and on a more collateral level with the heads of government of Italy, Britain and Germany.

There are only two possible Spanish promises capable of encouraging Mohammed VI to speak of an 'unprecedented stage' with Spain: Pedro Sánchez's personal commitment to declare that 'the Moroccan proposal for regional autonomy for the Sahara must constitute the basis for political negotiations'; or an official declaration by the Spanish government that the Madrid Agreements signed between Spain, Mauritania and Morocco on the transfer of the administration of the Spanish provinces of Western Sahara to the two North African countries are valid and legal. In both cases, autonomy as a basis for negotiation and the legality of the Madrid Agreements, Morocco's sovereignty over the territory is de facto recognised.

As long as Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez does not assume this responsibility, the crisis will remain open. Mediation by the United States, as Minister Albares implies, would be useless in this case. If there was a personal commitment from President Sánchez to King Mohammed VI, and someone prevented him from putting it into practice, it is very likely that the Alawite sovereign took it at face value, and when it did not materialise, he froze institutional relations once again, which are at a very low ebb.