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Morocco-Spain cooperation is unavoidable, despite territorial overlapping

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita

When the Moroccan parliament amended two maritime border laws earlier this month, it explicitly praised the government's proactive extension of the limits of the country's territorial sovereignty. In terms of geostrategy, the government in Rabat reconsidered the maritime borders to include the Atlantic coast off the Western Sahara. However, the delimitation has acquired new dimensions because the same zone overlaps with Spanish sovereignty in the Canary Islands.

During the parliamentary hearing, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita legitimised the move as Morocco's actualisation of full sovereign rights over its land and borders. For Morocco, that "fullness" includes at once the de facto territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles off the Sahara coast, added to the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf that comprise 200 and 350 nautical miles respectively off all of Morocco's coastline. The amended laws grant sovereignty simultaneously over air space, natural resources and the sea bed within the territorial limits. For the amended laws to comply more with international regulations, negotiation with Spain is unavoidable.

Due to scant coverage on local media, the Moroccan people view the Mediterranean borders with Spain as being more vulnerable. Unlike the Atlantic coast, a skirmish happened between the two countries over a Mediterranean island in 2002. In 2013, Spanish civil guards boarded the Moroccan king's yacht; King Mohammed VI and his entourage were mistaken for drug smugglers while on holiday. To mitigate the diplomatic friction, the Spanish palace issued an immediate apology. More recently, despite Moroccan anti-immigration measures, Spanish vessels have carried clandestine migrants from Morocco for free. In both cases, Morocco and Spain avoided tackling the need to redraw maritime borders.

Today, circumstances push both countries to prioritise negotiations to settle the territorial overlap, especially in the Atlantic. Madrid rushed to curb unexpected escalations when new Minister of Foreign Affairs Arancha González Laya visited Rabat on her first mission outside the EU. As the main outcome of the visit, both countries agreed that unilateral steps, especially in the Atlantic, only generate tension and hamper solutions beneficial for all.

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In contrast, the President of the regional government in the Canary Islands, Angel Victor Torres, hinted at grave escalations if Morocco puts a hand on "one millimetre" of the islands' territorial waters. The media in Morocco overlooked the threat but, for Rabat, Torres's words explained the importance of the Atlantic coast as far as Spain is concerned.

It is probable that the main reason behind the recent clash is a silent struggle over natural resources in the Atlantic. The continental shelves of the two countries overlap in a mineral-rich undersea volcano known as the Tropic Seamount. It is said to contain massive quantities of such minerals as cobalt, and a huge concentration of tellurium, a rare substance used in solar panels. Being closer to the Canary Islands, the treasure was discovered by a Spanish-British mission. So far, Spain is privileged, especially because Morocco has been crippled by the problem in the Western Sahara. However, international laws stipulate negotiation between Rabat and Madrid, since the Canary Islands is not a separate country. Spanish exploration is thus a unilateral step disallowed by international law.

By amending the two laws, Morocco hit many targets. First, it re-balances the gap with Spain, since bilateral negotiations transcend the imposed limit of the Sahara affair.

It also tested the new government coalition in Madrid. The Podemos Party has been particularly anti-Moroccan in different aspects. As a provocative warning, Spanish F-18 fighter jets flew over the Canary Islands. Nevertheless, an earlier Forbes report had described Morocco as the biggest customer of US arms in the MENA region in 2019, with a $10.3 billion investment mostly to upgrade its air force. That is why it was not necessary for Rabat to react to the Spanish provocation.

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Moreover, Rabat reiterates its readiness for negotiations, playing up the benefits that Madrid may not want to sacrifice. Today, Spain gains much from being Morocco's major trading partner both in imports and exports; Morocco is the second largest destination for Spanish goods outside the EU, while Spain receives 41 per cent of Moroccan exports to the bloc. The trade imbalance favours the Spanish, added to the value of smuggled goods. Also, Spain is a top destination for Moroccan tourists every summer. In 2018, around 900,000 Moroccans visited Spain, and spent around MAD 5.1 billion.

Morocco indeed requires political and economic stability while preparing a new development plan. However, Spain will be the most vulnerable to an unstable neighbour to the south. In 2019 alone, Morocco blocked 74,000 clandestine migrants heading for Spain.

As such, negotiations look the best option to agree on a win-win compromise in political sovereignty and economic benefit. Both countries understand and recognise the imperative of mutual cooperation. Instead of exacerbating the relationship, a win-win outcome is possible over the Atlantic coast, added to the benefits that both countries generate today. Above all, if some Spanish politicians tame their colonial gaze and tendencies, and Morocco builds on its legal steps to stand more steadfast in its own interests, a promising horizon becomes more likely.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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