Spain and Germany reconcile with Morocco
Spanish-Moroccan relations had been in a desolate state since April 2021, when Brahim Ghali, a prominent leader of the Western Sahara liberation movement Frente Polisario - and as such considered an enemy of the state by Morocco - was treated in a Spanish hospital for a Covid 19 disease.
Until recently, German-Moroccan relations were even worse. In March 2021, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry had ordered a ban on contact between all state institutions and the German Embassy and German organizations after Germany denounced, among other things, U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition at the United Nations of Morocco's claims to Western Sahara. But now there is a thaw on both fronts.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was received with full honors by King Mohammed VI in Rabat on April 7, even being invited to break the traditional fast during Ramadan. The meeting heralded a new phase in bilateral relations and marked a radical change of course by Spain. In a letter to Mohammed VI, Sánchez had previously expressed sympathy for the first time for Rabat's plan to grant Western Sahara far-reaching autonomy rights in return for underpinning the territory's territorial affiliation with Morocco. Until now, Spain, as a former colonial power, had remained neutral on this highly sensitive issue.
Sánchez himself faced harsh criticism in Spain for the move, which was not coordinated with his left-wing populist coalition partner Unidas Podemos. Just hours before leaving for Rabat, the Spanish Congress voted in favor of a motion rejecting the change of course and calling instead for a referendum, with the votes of the coalition partner and other supporters of the minority government, as well as the conservative Partido Popular.
Although experts such as Eduard Soler i Lecha of the renowned Barcelona-based think tank "CIDOB" (co-author of our study "Creating Euro-Mediterranean bonds that deliver") believe that normalizing relations would probably have happened sooner or later, the Ukraine war has just accelerated the process. This is because Morocco has traditionally acted as a partner to the EU in its migration policy in the western Mediterranean, with the aim of preventing irregular migrants from leaving the country's territory for Spain. A policy that is repeatedly criticized as hardly compatible with international law.
The partnership with Morocco and the way it is structured is all the more important because the loss of the wheat harvest due to the war is already giving cause for concern that this could lead to additional migratory pressure on the EU's external borders, especially in the Sahel region. The large number of refugees from Ukraine further exhausts the absorption capacity and willingness of many EU countries. The beneficiaries of the Spanish-Moroccan reconciliation include thousands of Moroccans who earn their living in the EU and who now have a direct route to or through Spain and back.
From Morocco's point of view, the diplomatic blockade seems to be paying off on balance, because Spain is not only accommodating Morocco for a return to the bilateral status quo ante on the Western Sahara issue, but is also getting into new trouble with Algeria, Morocco's arch-enemy, for precisely this reason. Spain obtains almost 50% of its gas imports from Morocco's neighbor and is thus highly dependent - especially since Russia is in second place with just under 20%. But Algeria should ultimately resist the temptation to use its gas supplies as leverage: Its reputation as a reliable supplier is too good, even in times of crisis, and the prospect of new business with Europe is too tempting in light of the Ukraine war (Italy has already recently concluded an agreement to this effect in order to reduce its dependence on Russia). However, Algeria warns Spain against forwarding even some Algerian gas to Morocco - this affront could then actually lead to a supply stop.
Germany and Morocco converge
The reconciliation between Germany and Morocco began even before the Russian attack on Ukraine. It was based on the presumed great interest of both sides in resuming extensive development cooperation and took place on the occasion of new governments taking office in both capitals. Berlin kicked things off by publishing on its website a more conciliatory and friendly attitude toward Morocco, although unchanged in terms of content. This was followed by a letter from the German president and a video exchange between the foreign ministers of the two countries.
The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine is also likely to further intensify German-Moroccan relations. In addition to cooperation on migration policy, the energy partnership with Rabat is of particular interest to Berlin. With Morocco's help, Germany could kill two birds with one stone: reduce its own dependence on Russian gas and, at the same time, use green hydrogen from the Moroccan desert to advance the fight against climate change. The two countries signed an agreement to this effect back in 2020.
Even then, the energy partnership with Morocco was of great importance to Germany, as few countries can boast a comparable combination of solar radiation, political stability and technical know-how. This is likely to be all the truer today in view of the threat of a shortfall in Russian gas supplies.
Morocco stays away from UN vote against Russia
Despite the diplomatic thaw, however, EU member states failed to win Morocco over to the broad alliance of 141 states that condemned Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine at the UN General Assembly in early March. Morocco stayed away from the vote, probably worried that Russia might otherwise retaliate by supporting the Frente Polisario in Western Sahara. Like the diplomatic friction of the past year, this underscores the fact that the Kingdom of Morocco pursues a self-confident and independent foreign policy, sometimes pursuing interests that may conflict with those of its European partners.
Spain and Germany would therefore be well advised to cultivate and further expand their partnership with Morocco in order to exploit the resulting potential for both sides of the Mediterranean. At the same time, they must not become too dependent on individual countries, particularly in the areas of migration and energy policy.