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Abstract: Spanish-Moroccan bilateral relations are shaped by geography, sociology and interdependence As two neighbouring states, there are many points of confrontation, but cultural and economic exchange has also been fostered. As a result, the two countries have been cooperating for decades in many areas, such as the control of illegal immigration. However, Morocco has become aware of the power that this control can give it over Spain and has taken advantage of it to achieve its strategic territorial objectives. Spain, on the other hand, has responded with a strategy of appeasement that has led to numerous concessions such as recognition of Morocco's 2007 Plan for Western Sahara.

Key words: Spain, Morocco, illegal migration, Western Sahara, grey zone conflicts.


Geography plays a fundamental role in international relations, geopolitics and strategy. Specifically, the location of a country is a determining factor in the construction of its identities and conditions its relations with other states. Generally, neighboring states tend to be adversaries, given that the fronts of confrontation are greater. This is the case of Spain and Morocco, whose relations have structurally conflicting components that have led to cyclical crises.

However, due to sociological, historical, security and economic factors these two states have been called upon to understand each other and for this reason, for several decades now, they have been advocating the promotion of cooperation, especially on issues such as illegal immigration.

Spain and Morocco have been collaborating on immigration matters since 2004, after a period of rather poor bilateral relations. This collaboration is materialized in joint patrols between the Guardia Civil and the Royal Gendarmerie, in joint police stations in Algeciras-Tangier or in the different agreements for the return of illegal migrants who have crossed the Spanish borders. However, throughout these years, the Spanish dependence on Moroccan goodwill in the control of irregular immigration has become evident, and Morocco takes advantage of this.

In 2023, the current situation in the Maghreb is complex and Spain's relations with the different actors in the region are a game of balances. Morocco is pursuing an assertive and quite effective strategy to get Spain to give in and support its political pretensions. In other words, for some time now, the Kingdom of Morocco has been using irregular migration as a means to put pressure on Spain.

Spain - Morocco Relations

The Kingdom of Spain and the Kingdom of Morocco are two States that, due to their geographic proximity and common history, have needed each other. In fact, the Moroccan community is the largest foreign community in Spain with some 800,000 immigrants. However, relations between the two countries are complex and full of ups and downs.

Certainly, there are many issues in which Spain and Morocco cooperate positively. In the 1990s, the "colchón de intereses" strategy was launched (according to this theory, a deep network of economic ties is the best guarantee for underpinning relations between the two countries), which encouraged the creation of a network of multidimensional ties that would increase the political and economic cost in case of confrontation, as well as being a guarantee to "prevent the breakdown of traditional diplomacy and as a means to dissuade both countries from the use of force"[1].

It was under these premises that the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation between the Kingdom of Spain and the Kingdom of Morocco was signed in 1991, which has been the basis of bilateral relations. Successive agreements have focused on the matters that most interest each State: Spain needs Moroccan collaboration in the fight against jihadist terrorism and the control of irregular migration flows; Morocco on the other hand is mainly interested in the good development of economic relations given that Spain surpassed France as the first commercial client and supplier of the Kingdom of Morocco in 2014, [2].

This strategy, needless to say, has not been entirely fruitful. Although the interests between the two States were considerable, this did not prevent the Perejil incident of July 2002, nor have the massive arrivals of immigrants to Ceuta, Melilla or the Canary Islands ceased.

This is because there are strategic issues that confront the neighboring countries and create fissures in the relationship. These disputes can be summarized in four: first, the issue of Western Sahara; second, the Moroccan claim over Ceuta, Melilla and the Spanish islands and rocks off the African coast (ergo also claiming territorial waters); third, the fishing agreements in which Morocco considers that Saharawi territorial waters are Moroccan and there is dissension with Europe and Spain; fourth, the issue of illegal immigration. Both Spain and the EU have outsourced border management and illegal immigration to Morocco in exchange for large amounts of money and political support for the Moroccan government, but this collaboration has backfired.

In addition to the above, there are the Spanish-Algerian relations and the Algerian-Moroccan relations. Morocco and Algeria maintain a historical regional rivalry that has led them to a zero-sum context where the non-existence of diplomatic relations, the closure of land borders and airspace and an arms race are the priority. The problem lies in the fact that now both Morocco and Algeria see Spain as one more actor in their zero-sum game, which Spain must avoid at all costs: not to fall into the balance of one side or the other, but to remain in the equilibrium that has reigned throughout these years, [3].

Figure 1: map on Western Sahara and trilateral relations. Source: El Orden Mundial

This map illustrates the situation in the area. The migration flows come mainly from Morocco, but also from the Sahara and Algeria. Algeria exports gas to Spain, which is essential in the current context with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the energy crisis. The disputed waters to the south of the Canary Islands also appear, areas of important fishing grounds where more than 90% of the catches of Spanish ships are obtained. On the other hand, the Tindouf refugee camps - located in Algeria and inhabited by Saharawis - and the migratory routes that cross the Western Sahara entering through the Guerguerat pass can be observed. This is very important given that young Saharawis are increasingly dissatisfied and without expectations for the future, being the perfect breeding ground for the proliferation of terrorism and organized crime.

Morocco's Strategic Approach

Morocco is a revisionist and expansionist state that drinks from the nationalist idea of "Greater Morocco", constituting its geography of the imagination. It was proposed a century ago by the politician Allal al-Fassi and, among other territories, the annexation of Western Sahara, Ceuta, Melilla and islands and islets of the Strait of Gibraltar is sought. This is Morocco's grand strategy. In order to achieve its political objectives, Morocco has diversified its international alliances and has an assertive attitude towards Spain and a belligerent attitude towards the Polisario Front and Algeria.

Figure 2: map on the idea of "Greater Morocco" and the territories currently claimed by Morocco. Source: Prepared by the author.

In turn, it should be noted that Morocco is a great ally of the United States, a historical relationship that dates back to the independence of the Americans since Morocco was one of the first states to recognize the Americans and their Peace and Friendship treaty, signed in 1786, has never been broken. This explains their good harmony today, which led to the transactional exchange during President Trump's term in office whereby the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara at the same time as Morocco signed the Agreement on the normalization of relations with Israel, within the framework of the Abraham Accords process.

On the other hand, Moroccan strategy tends to seek to achieve its strategic objectives in the medium and long term. For example, the claim of Ceuta, Melilla and the adjacent islets as Moroccan began to be formulated in the 1920s with the idea of "Greater Morocco" discussed above. When the Kingdom of Morocco gained its independence in 1956 it did not accept the uti possidetis iuris principle, according to which "the new independent State must respect the borders inherited from decolonization", [4]. Likewise, in 1975 Morocco tried - unsuccessfully - to include both cities in the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, that is, pending decolonization [5] and periodically claims Ceuta and Melilla as its own in the UN General Assembly. Its Magna Carta of 2011 speaks of guaranteeing "the territorial integrity of the Kingdom within its authentic borders" in its Article 19. Already in December 2020 the former Prime Minister of Morocco, Saadeddine Othmani, declared that first the Sahara conflict had to be settled definitively and then "the day will come to reopen the issue of Ceuta and Melilla", [6]. Action after action Morocco manages to get the message that Ceuta, Melilla and the islets are Moroccan to sink in the international society and these claims are seen as legitimate.

In short, Morocco has an active strategic initiative with clear objectives that has definitely been boosted by President Trump's 2020 decision, getting Morocco to adopt an even more assertive attitude in its international relations and the achievement of its strategic objectives.

On the other hand, Morocco's strategy to achieve its strategic objectives could be in the "Gray Zone" of confrontation. According to Frank G. Hoffman, "Gray Zone Conflicts" are those conflict situations in which state actors carry out multifaceted activities. That is, there is a use of a state's integral capabilities in an ambiguous manner to achieve a strategic objective. The key is that these activities are always below the consideration of aggressive use of military forces, [7]. Therefore, the gray zone is more aggressive in the ends - annexing territories of another state - than in the means, which are ambiguous and gradual, making it difficult to attribute actions.

A key point to take into account is the modernization of the Moroccan Armed Forces by the hand of the United States. In principle, this arms race is explained by its rivalry with Algeria and the increase of violence in the Sahara contributing to its strategic internal balance, but it must be emphasized that a modern and highly capable Armed Forces can allow Morocco to close the circle of the grey zone and ensure the success of the destabilizing strategy.

One of the most effective instruments to put pressure on Spain without using military means is to use irregular immigrants as a tool to destabilize the country and, ultimately, to achieve: Spain's change of position on the Sahara issue and, in the future, the annexation of Spanish African territories.

Illegal Immigration as a Pressure Factor

Spain has delegated the control of illegal immigration to its southern neighbor, providing it with financial aid to modernize its surveillance systems. This aid is mostly financed by the European Union. However, Morocco has learned from other states such as the Republic of Türkiye and has used this card to put pressure on Europe and especially on Spain.

Immigrants have been used as instruments multiple times, sometimes as a retaliatory measure by order of Mohamed VI, as happened in 2014 when about 1000 illegal immigrants entered Spain through Ceuta in two days in the face of the passivity of Moroccan security forces due to an incident with the Guardia Civil, [8].

However, the underlying disputes that mostly explain the different massive entries of illegal immigrants into Spain are the Sahara issue and the Spanishness of Ceuta, Melilla and islets. A succinct analysis of these massive inflows in the last decade is presented below.

In 2012, in addition to Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish islands and rocks in the Strait of Gibraltar were a destination for irregular immigrants from Morocco. For this reason, the former Minister of the Interior, Jorge Fernández Díaz, announced that a detachment of the Civil Guard would be established on the Chafarinas Islands, [9]. This decision greatly angered the Moroccan government, which protested and, consequently, the mission was postponed. In spite of this, the massive assaults of irregular immigrants were reactivated that same August.

Spain's response was to extend the hand of cooperation. On October 21, 2012, the X High Level Meeting ("Reunión de Alto Nivel" or RAN) between the governments of Spain and Morocco was held in Rabat in which, ignoring the issue of the sovereignty of the Spanish territories in Africa, numerous Agreements and Memoranda were adopted in the field of immigration. However, the appearance of the Moroccan Prime Minister after the High Level Meeting was very clarifying regarding the position of the Kingdom of Morocco: "Ceuta and Melilla is a very old issue between Morocco and Spain, and it requires a climate of consultation, of dialogue, at the appropriate time, outside this framework", [10].

In 2014 it became evident that Spain depended on Morocco and its goodwill in the management of immigration and it was accused that this was a weakness that could be exploited by Morocco, so it became imperative to maintain a good relationship with the government of the South. In February of that year "The tragedy of El Tarajal" took place, where 14 immigrants drowned in the sea while trying to reach the Spanish coast. In March there were numerous attempts to jump the fences of Ceuta - on the 4th, 1,500 people tried to enter illegally - and Melilla - on the 18th almost 500 illegal immigrants managed to jump the fence -. In response to these crises, intergovernmental collaboration was increased and efforts were made to involve the EU more through funding instruments. Despite these good intentions, the trickle of attempted mass entries continued in August.

In 2021, the most relevant and evident events for this analysis took place. At the end of 2020, the conflict with the Polisario Front over Western Sahara resumed, while President Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the territory and the Moroccan Prime Minister claimed sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla. The U.S. support was an endorsement of Moroccan pretensions and gave wings to the government to pressure countries such as Germany or Spain to recognize its sovereignty over the Sahara.

In April 2021, it became known that the Spanish government had secretly (i.e. without the knowledge of the Moroccan authorities) transferred the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali, to a hospital in Logroño for treatment of COVID-19 for humanitarian reasons at the request of Algeria. This action angered Morocco and further deteriorated - even more - the Spanish-Moroccan bilateral relations. A month later, on May 18, several mass entries of illegal immigrants took place in which, in Ceuta alone, 8,000 people tried to enter Spain. In response, the army was deployed and the police presence was reinforced, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the neighbors. One of the first reactions from a representative of the Kingdom of Morocco was that of its ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich, who declared that "there are acts that have consequences and they must be assumed", [11]. However, on June 10 of the same year, the European Parliament issued Resolution 2021/2747 (RSP) in which it was argued in point H that

" the official statements made by Morocco on May 31, 2021 underlined that the bilateral crisis was not related to the migration issue; that the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs acknowledged at first that the reasons for the crisis caused by the massive influx of thousands of people, including minors, was the fact that Spain had hosted the leader of the Polisario Front; that, in another official statement issued later, the Moroccan authorities acknowledged that the real reason was the alleged ambiguity of Spain's position on Western Sahara", [12].

That is, there was an explicit recognition that Morocco had used both Moroccan migrants and children to pressure Spain to change its policy on the Saharawi issue. Moncloa's response, despite already knowing the true nature of the migration crisis, was to replace the Foreign Minister, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, with Jose Manuel Albares, who is considered to be more "pro-Moroccan". The Moroccan action turned out to be brilliant, both for the way in which it was conceived: unexpectedly, with the aim of obtaining political gains in the Sahara, seeking to change the Spanish position outside the UN, directed against a territory it claims as its own, with the simple inaction of its police forces, allowing more than 10,000 people to try to reach the Sahara, and with the simple inaction of its police forces allowing more than 10,000 people to try to reach Spanish soil, [13]; and by the reaction of the Spanish government to this crisis: with more concessions to Morocco and recognizing the Moroccan Plan for Western Sahara of 2007 as the proposal with "the most serious, credible and realistic basis for the resolution of this dispute", [14].

Spain's Strategic Approach

Power without legitimacy tempts tests of strength, whereas legitimacy without power tempts empty posturing”. Diplomacy. Chapter 3. Henry Kissinger

Although studies such as the Elcano Index of global presence show that Spain, which ranks thirteenth, has more global presence than Morocco, which ranks 57th [15], Morocco has power over Spain. This power translates into the ability, through the instrumentalization of illegal immigration, to change the decisions of the Spanish government to achieve Moroccan political and strategic objectives.

According to the above, it can be seen that the Spanish strategy has been one of appeasement. Being aware of the dependence on Moroccan goodwill to control the inflow of illegal immigrants, Spain has been giving concessions to Morocco to avoid at all costs migratory crises. The use of illegal immigration as a pressure factor has been so effective that not only has Spain's position on the Sahara changed, but the mere possibility of this or other pressure weapons being used makes Spain avoid "angering" its southern neighbor at all costs. The last example is recent: faced with the Moroccan threat to suspend the Madrid-Rabat meeting at the beginning of February in case of voting in favor of the European Parliament Resolution urging Morocco to respect Human Rights, the MEPs of the Popular Party have chosen to absent themselves from the vote while the MEPs of the PSOE have voted against it. Will this strategy of appeasement have become a State strategy and not only a strategy carried out by the government of the day? That is something that will be seen in the coming years.

However, this paper argues that this would be a mistake. Strategies of this nature are rarely effective, because the power that is being appeased, seeing its relative power improve, does not cease to tighten the noose, quite the contrary. There are too many examples in history that demonstrate this. Therefore, in this way, the revisionist and expansionist Moroccan focus is definitively centered on Ceuta, Melilla and islands and islets of the Strait; we cannot forget that the great Moroccan strategy is the achievement of "Greater Morocco". On the other hand, the Spanish shift on the Sahara, as a former colonial power, is of great importance. This could lead the Polisario Front to intensify its actions against Morocco, further destabilizing the Saharawi territory in favor of increased terrorism and organized crime. Not to mention the role that could be played by Algeria, and even Russia, which has always supported the Saharawi cause and is an ally of Algeria, in addition to its growing presence in the Sahel and other territories neighboring Western Sahara. The possibility of the Sahara becoming "a new proxy board with global players involved" [16] is real and cannot be disdained either by Spain or by the European Union.

Nor has the "colchón de intereses" strategy been an optimal means to prevent Morocco from using its capabilities to pressure Spain. Paradoxically, despite the fact that it was Morocco that was the most economically dependent on its trade relations with Spain, in 2018 its authorities unilaterally closed the commercial border between Melilla and Morocco and in February 2020 the entry of fresh fish into Ceuta was vetoed by Moroccan customs authorities, [17].

Therefore, a more assertive and firm Spanish stance towards Morocco is advocated. The approach that has been reflected in the National Security Strategies of 2011, 2012 and 2017 has been not to "face explicitly and without complexes the direct and indirect problems involved in the Moroccan claim over Ceuta and Melilla" [18] but rather to maintain a passive attitude seeking to preserve the status quo.

The European Union's Role

Despite the fact that Europe participates in the financing of the Moroccan fight against illegal immigration, the strategy of the non-Mediterranean Member States with respect to this problem is that of "buck-passing". This strategy seeks for the "buck-passer" to get another state ("buck-catcher") to take on the burden of dealing with the problem or aggressor in question by staying out of the way.

The reasons for this are largely geographically based. So in this case it is Spain, Italy or Greece who manage illegal immigration. In turn, Spain tries to seek a "buck-passer" role to Morocco, but as we have seen this strategy has backfired.

Despite the fact that the European Union has been aware that it was being "blackmailed" and understood that the use of refugees as a pressure factor was a strategic problem when the Republic of Türkiye and Belarus used migrants as a bargaining chip or destabilizing factor, in the case of Morocco this has not been the case. Resolutions critical of Moroccan actions have been issued, but no progress has been made in the "Europeanization" of Ceuta and Melilla, nor has there been any support for the fight against illegal immigration beyond economic funding. Europe has always claimed that the migration crises were a bilateral issue between Spain and Morocco since the underlying conflict was over territorial issues.

This is a big mistake, among other things because most of the refugees in Morocco waiting to set foot on Spanish - ergo European - soil come from the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, which are currently the global focus of terrorist attacks and civil wars, together with many other factors that force migration, such as the economy and health. Considering that by 2050 the population of the continent is estimated to have doubled its current population, i.e. Africa is expected to be populated by 2.4 billion people in that year [19], it becomes imperative for Europe to react to the use of migrants - in addition to obvious humanitarian reasons - for strategic and security reasons. It was already seen in 2015 with Europe's largest refugee crisis to date that the management of the Union's external borders is a shared responsibility. The next crisis will be worse.

While it must be recognized that, following the incident of May 18, 2021, the European Union was quite assertive in rejecting "Morocco's use of border controls and migration, and in particular unaccompanied minors, as a means of exerting political pressure against a member state of the Union," [20].


Illegal immigration is a security problem that will become more dangerous in the coming years. That countries such as the Republic of Türkiye, Belarus or Morocco are making use of this phenomenon to achieve political and economic goals and gains concerns the European Union in general and each of its Member States in particular.

In the case of Morocco and Spain, it has become clear that there is a great Spanish dependence on the Kingdom of Morocco in the management of illegal immigration, and it has not been possible to prevent Morocco from acting through ambiguous means to destabilize Spain. While the Moroccan strategy has been more assertive and focused on achieving clear objectives (reaching "Greater Morocco"), Spain has presented a failed strategy of appeasement, making numerous concessions to its southern neighbor.


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