Spain-Morocco: Centre of gravity for the EU-Africa axis

Mohamed Khachani

5 mins - 28 de Enero de 2023, 14:47

Since the early 1990s and the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation, relations between Morocco and Spain have gained new momentum, born of political will at the highest level. These relations cover several areas, but the economy remains the driving force behind this rapprochement as shown by some key indicators. Trade between Rabat and Madrid has doubled in the last ten years, with growth rates of more than 10% per year since 2011. These results have enabled Spain to take the position as Morocco's leading supplier and customer for the last eight years and have allowed Morocco to become Spain's third largest economic partner outside the European Union, behind the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2021, a year marked by the repercussions of COVID-19 and the political crisis between the two countries, the value of this trade reached nearly Dhs 154 billion (1 euro = approximately Dhs 11), which confirms, according to the former Spanish ambassador to Morocco, Ricardo Diez-Hochleitner Rodríguez, the structural nature of these exchanges. This positive evolution is reflected in the trade coverage rate, which rose from 79.8% in 2017 to almost 100% in 2020 (96.9%) and 85.4% in 2021.

This trend is explained by the progress made in the gamut of Moroccan exports. In 2021, these exports consisted mainly of electrical distribution equipment, passenger cars, clothing products and agri-food products. Moroccan imports were mainly composed of petroleum products, industrial equipment, piston engines, copper wires and profiles, etc.

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As a sign of the dynamism of trade exchanges between the two countries, nearly 17,000 Spanish companies maintain trade relations with Morocco and around 1,000 companies are established in the Kingdom. These companies have managed to integrate smoothly into the national economic fabric, marked by the emergence of efficient industrial ecosystems and the rise of global Moroccan businesses. These Spanish companies operate, of course, in traditional sectors such as textiles and clothing, tourism, and agriculture, in the latter case mitigating the competitive effect that used to be a source of friction between the two countries in European markets. But this presence now extends to the so-called sectors of the future, in the fields of energy transition, green hydrogen and renewable energies, seawater desalination and high-speed rail transport, etc.

This economic rapprochement has been sustained by a common political will to foster cooperation between the two countries. Over the last three decades, this has been reflected in the multiplication of high-level meetings between political leaders and the signing of a series of agreements and pacts. As a result of these developments, the two governments have been able to overcome political and diplomatic difficulties (despite the persistence of certain territorial disputes) and have succeeded in bringing a new dynamic to their trade exchanges, favoured by several factors: geographical proximity, political stability, a favourable institutional and legal environment, economic liberalisation (Morocco is linked to some fifty countries by free trade agreements), an investment regime favourable to foreign investors, a programme of industrial zones and modernisation of telecommunications, available and cheap labour, and proximity to European and African markets. These various factors have enabled Morocco to rank as the fourth most attractive African country for trade, according to the ‘Country Brand Ranking Trade 2022-2023’ report.

As the future is prepared in the present, or as political science teaches us, ‘To govern is to foresee.’ The two neighbouring countries have clearly understood the interest of establishing a common strategic perspective. This will was reinforced by the adoption of a new roadmap established during the visit to Morocco of the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, on 7 April 2022, which marks a new stage in relations between the two countries. In economic matters, this roadmap focuses on three objectives: sectoral cooperation in all areas of common interest (economic, commercial, energy, industrial and cultural, etc.), the facilitation of trade and economic links between the two countries, and the updating of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation.

To boost business cooperation, in 2013 the two employers' associations created the Spanish-Moroccan Economic Council (CEMAES), a support body designed to provide companies with the means to survey and invest in both Morocco and Spain, as well as to explore third markets jointly.

In this exploration of third markets, Africa presents an undeniable opportunity for cooperation between the two countries. While Spain is Morocco's gateway to Europe and the advocate of Morocco’s interests within the European Union, Morocco remains Spain's gateway to Africa. Aware of the strategic challenge that this continent represents, Morocco has engaged in active diplomacy towards sub-Saharan Africa (actual visits, sustained cooperation). This cooperation can also serve as a bridge for Spanish companies to a continent that offers immense investment opportunities. As a sign of this interest in the continent, Spain has invested more than $4 billion in fifteen years, that is, 60% of its investments abroad, which has allowed it to become the leading African investor in West Africa and the second largest in the continent. 

In Africa, Morocco alone accounts for 50% of Spanish exports, according to ICEX data, which is not much compared to the potential that Africa offers Spain. Moroccan-Spanish cooperation can play an important role in this regard, given the geostrategic position of both countries. The importance of this position prompted former Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos to claim: 'When you look at this Africa-Europe axis, what is its centre of gravity? What is its centre of gravity? It is Morocco and Spain, not Berlin or Pretoria.'
Artículo publicado originalmente en español en Cinco Días

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