By Abdessamad Fatmi
The story of Morocco and Spain is the tale of a difficult old international couple, victim of its cultural differences, turbulent mutual pasts, lingering prejudices, strong personalities, diverging careers, yet with a promising and fertile potential. Moroccan-Spanish relations are indeed complex, unpredictable, and wide-ranging. History, culture, society, geography, economy, politics and strategy are all issues that matter to this couple. It is a relationship that exhibits a number of contradictory aspects. Each of the two countries considers the other a close and strategic partner, relationships between the two kings are cordial, government relations are given priority with high level summits and priority foreign visits, economic relations are increasing, and the number of Moroccan immigrants living in Spain (at over 700 000) is at its highest ever… Yet, the bilateral relationship keeps producing awkward spasms and crises that conjure up demons from the past and reveal the enduring mutual clichés, misunderstandings, mistrust, internal pressures and diverging interests.
The last decade has clearly shown this tendency with the deepening and consolidation of relations between the two neighbours punctuated by crises that brought the two to loggerheads over issues such as the fisheries episode of 2001, the Perejil/Laila dispute of July 2002 and the more recent crisis over the Laayoun intervention. These repeated frictions, however, have never brought about open conflict. It seems that the shared and deepening interests between the two and the economic, political and social interdependence have proved to be resilient in the face of the recurring chapters of hostility. This is probably proof that the famous concept coined by the socialist ex-prime minister Felipe González of a “cushion of shared interests”, which has become substantial since the 1980s, is still valid, allowing relations to withstand serious crises.
Recently, and after a largely smooth and prospering relationship between Morocco and the Zapatero socialist government, the leaked US government documents have showed that relations began to go sour again with King Juan Carlos’ visit to Ceuta on 5 November 2007, which deeply infuriated Moroccans because it came just one day before Moroccan Green March anniversary celebrations. The relationship deteriorated even more by the end of 2009 owing to the Aminatu Haidar episode. Relations continued to worsen during the summer of 2010 because of incidents in Ceuta and Melilla and the controversial nomination of Ahmedou Ould Souilem, an ex-Polisario member, as the head of Moroccan diplomacy in Madrid. A further nosedive took place during the recent incidents on 8 November in Laayoun after the dismantling of the Agdaym Izik camp. While the Spanish press and opposition strongly criticized the intervention, Morocco vehemently denounced the defamation campaign against it, press manipulation and the publication of erroneous information, while hundreds of thousands marched in Casablanca against the policies of the Spanish opposition Popular Party. The crisis came to a peak when the Spanish Parliament passed a resolution that named Morocco as solely responsible for the Laayoun incidents, denounced the repression and the systematic violations of human rights in the Sahara, and asked Prime Minister Zapatero to reinforce relations with Polisario and work towards achieving self-determination for the Sahraoui population. The response came shortly afterwards with Moroccan Government spokesperson Khalid Naciri declaring that Morocco has to revise and reevaluate its relations with all Spanish institutions at all levels; the Moroccan parliament widely endorsed the initiative and called for the issues of Ceuta and Melilla, two traditional pressure tools that Morocco often resorts to during times of crisis, to be reopened.
At this stage, many questions beg to be asked: Has the current spat reached its limit or are we to witness further escalations? Would relations worsen even more with the likely accession of the PP to office in 2012? How do the other components of the “cushion of shared interests”, namely the economies and societies react to this type of political crisis? What kind of measures need to be taken for these cyclical crises to be avoided altogether? Finally, does this odd couple still have a future or is it on its way to a break-up?