Recent events in Europe show how important and fundamental dialogue and understanding between neighbours are. In the case of Spain and Morocco, this neighbourhood has been marked by political ups and downs that continue today. Even so, the ties between the two countries go beyond politics. At the same time, trade and collaboration have been boosted in several key areas for both nations.
To debate and analyse the current bilateral relations between Spain and Morocco, the Universidad Europa de Madrid organised a round table discussion at the Madrid Press Association. Several people with vast knowledge of Spanish-Moroccan ties took part in the conference: Juan Salcedo, professor and former rector of the Universidad Europea de Madrid; Javier Fernández Arribas, journalist and director of the magazine Atalayar; Hanane Bensouda, translator; and Bernabé López García, professor emeritus of the Universidad Autónoma and expert in Arab studies.
Through questions posed by Julieta Espín, lecturer at the Universidad Europea, the participants explained the evolution of relations between Rabat and Madrid, not only on a political level, but also on an economic and social level. They also put forward proposals for strengthening these ties and expanding them to other areas, such as culture, science and education.
For Espín, the neighbourhood between Spain and Morocco is one of the most complex due, among other things, to the sharp contrasts between the two countries. Over the last few decades, these relations have become more interdependent, which is why, according to the professor, areas of cooperation must be identified and intensified. Espín names some of them, such as the fight against terrorism, illegal trafficking and migration. She also proposes promoting the cultural and scientific sectors.
With respect to the evolution of bilateral relations in recent years, Bernabé López highlighted the role of the Averroes Committee, a Spanish-Moroccan group created in the mid-1990s with the aim of including the opinion of civil society in high-level meetings. He also referred to the recent diplomatic and migratory crisis, although he also affirmed that both sides recognised "the mistakes made". The Spanish government relieved the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, while Rabat expressed optimism in the normalisation of relations.
"The difference between regimes makes understanding difficult", declared López. However, he stressed that "today more than ever we must celebrate our complementarities as neighbours". "Relations have been saw-toothed, it is clear that we are far from each other. But a large part of us are seeking a rapprochement", he concluded.
On the other hand, Javier Fernández Arribas assured that trade relations between the two nations are excellent. "These links have not been affected by the political crisis", he stressed. Spain has more economic exchange with Morocco than with the whole of Latin America, while relations between businessmen and non-political institutions have only been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, something that has also occurred with tourism and cooperation in the field of education. In this sense, Fernández Arribas praised the work of King Mohammed VI and his commitment to the welfare of Moroccan citizens.
"The idea that is transmitted in some of the media is that there is a deep crisis due to divergent interests," he said. As the director of Atalayar explained, one of the main problems is that part of the current Spanish government supports the Polisario Front, an aspect that "makes understanding with Morocco difficult". In addition to this challenge, there are other controversies that have occurred in recent years that have obstructed political relations. However, civil society follows a different path, as does counter-terrorism cooperation. "There are issues that are above political conjunctures," stressed Fernández Arribas.
Continuing on the social, economic and cooperation level, Hanane Bensouda considers that relations between the two countries "are currently at their best at a socio-economic level". Spain is Morocco's number one supplier, ahead of France, a point that encourages "the creation of strong political, economic, cultural and even military ties". "Both countries need each other. Spain and Morocco are indispensable partners", she added. The translator also called for cooperation in Africa. "There is unease between the two governments, the solution lies not only with the politicians but also with society", she remarked.
Julieta Espín then discussed the problem of xenophobia and stereotypes: How can we build bridges while one part of society presents a racist discourse?
For Fernández Arribas, this question requires a joint response and work on both sides. The journalist also recognises that there are still many stereotypes and clichés.
Juan Salcedo chose to analyse Spain's foreign policy towards its neighbours. "Spain is not a negotiator. It does not build bridges. We do very little in international relations", he admitted. On the contrary, like the other participants, the professor praised trade relations and the involvement of civil society in both countries. "The capacity of civil society is enormous. There is cordiality among the people," he said.
To foster bilateral cooperation, Salcedo proposed several sectors: education, transport, infrastructure and energy. With regard to education, the former rector stressed the importance of a plan for collaboration and work with Moroccan universities and institutions. "There are many people who can teach us a great deal," said Salcedo, as well as recalling that in Spain there is a great lack of knowledge about Africa.
For the professor, infrastructures are Morocco's main obstacle. "Morocco claims to be the gateway to Africa, but it cannot be. It has no transport infrastructure. The motorways leave much to be desired, which is why this could be the second pole of cooperation with Morocco". Even so, he stressed the speed at which Morocco is growing.
Turning to the problem of xenophobia, Bensouda pointed out that stereotypes are based on a lack of knowledge of the other. "The media does not help," she said. "They inform, but sometimes they also, voluntarily, give a wrong image of the country", she added. For the translator, "Moroccans know Spanish better than Spaniards know Moroccans". Bensouda explained that, beyond political differences, "Moroccans respect Spanish, they admire it". This carries over to education, where Morocco looks to Spain.
On the other hand, "when Spanish is spoken about Moroccan, sometimes there is rejection, mistrust", the translator lamented, blaming this problem on a lack of knowledge. Even so, she acknowledged that "Moroccans should make an effort not to play the role of social victims". "Efforts should be made on both sides. Civil society has the last word. Politicians can no more build bridges than people", he added.
To strengthen these links, Bensouda proposes promoting cultural and educational cooperation. Sport also fosters understanding. "We must not be afraid to talk, to dialogue. We must stop having taboo subjects, if we have to talk about religion or politics, we talk about it. Dialogue is the mechanism to move forward. We have to re-read history, because there is a problem with the history between the two countries. There is a feeling of resentment and it is the basis of misunderstanding. We need to sit down and talk about what has united us and what has separated us," he reflected.
Regarding taboo subjects, Bernabé López alluded to the question of the Sahara, something he considered "a sacred subject" within Moroccan society.
In this respect, Javier Fernández Arribas acknowledged that this issue has been used in Spain "in a partisan manner". He also said that in Spain there are quite a few critical voices against the Moroccan authorities based on clichés. "The people who speak in this way do not know Morocco", he stressed, alluding to political development and infrastructures. "It is a reality that political and social development in the last 20 years has been spectacular," he declared. The journalist also recalled that the last elections were attended by 5,000 international observers who did not report any irregularities.
On the question of the Sahara, Fernández Arribas pointed out an important turning point: the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the region by the former US president, Donald Trump, in December 2020. This position has been maintained under the new administration led by Joe Biden. After the United States, other Arab countries have followed Washington's lead, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Germany has also changed its position with the new government of Olaf Scholz, while the party of French President Emmanuel Macron has opened a headquarters in Dakhla. Spain, on the other hand, remains in a "complicated balance". "It has to come to an understanding with Algeria over gas", the journalist recalled.
Even so, Fernández Arribas affirmed that the Sahara could never be independent, and even less so in the current situation. An independent Sahara with Algeria in control would mean for Russia, an ally of Algiers, an outlet to the Atlantic. For this reason, the EU would not allow Moscow, via Algeria, to have an outlet to the Atlantic.
Moreover, with jihadist activity in the Sahel on the rise, the Sahara would be a failed state. Already today, thousands of people are living in dire straits in Tindouf and other camps. "The Saharawis are fed up with having no future", he said. He warned that terrorist groups can easily attract young people because of the lack of future prospects. "The Saharawis need family reunification, work, a dignified life and an end to a situation that obeys interests that respond to the Algerian military junta", he concluded.
Later, during question time, the students asked about the situation in Ceuta and Melilla and about the strong relationship between Morocco and the United States.
With respect to the autonomous cities, Fernández Arribas affirmed that "Spain could take a step in the Sahara as long as Morocco commits itself to Ceuta, Melilla and the territorial waters". Bernabé López, for his part, revealed that "Ceuta and Melilla are a minor issue compared to others, although they have been used in times of crisis to increase pressure on Spain".
On the historical link between Rabat and Washington, Salcedo assured that, due to this good relationship, the United States' preference will always be for Morocco rather than Spain. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that "there is no need to fight with Morocco over relations with the United States".
To conclude, Fernández Arribas alluded to the worrying current situation, where liberal democracies in Europe and Latin America are experiencing a decline while authoritarian populism is taking power. These populisms, according to the director of Atalayar, are present in Russia and China, but also in Brazil and Mexico. "What is of value are those countries with a legitimate political system where human rights, democracy and freedom are respected", he stressed. In this context, Morocco and Spain share the system of parliamentary monarchy, a political system "that has more value than other regimes". In the age of social media, it is also necessary to be alert to fake news, as well as demagogy and populism.