Spain’s new king makes first Morocco visit

Spain's King Felipe VI arrived in Rabat on Monday for the start of his first trip to neighbouring Morocco since acceding to the throne in June.

Spain's new king makes first Morocco visit
Spain's King Felipe VI (L) is greeted by King Mohammed VI of Morocco at the airport on Monday in Rabat. Photo: AFP/STR

The monarch, accompanied by his wife Letizia on his third official trip abroad, after the Vatican and Portugal, was met at the airport by King Mohammed VI and his wife Lalla Salma.

They then headed to the palace for an official ceremony, official media reported.

Also present at the ceremony were the Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo and his Moroccan counterpart Salaheddine Mezouar.

On Tuesday Felipe VI is due to meet Moroccan premier Abdelilah Benkirane and will then inaugurate a tourism training centre, accompanied by Mohammed VI, while his wife will visit a cancer research centre.

The 46-year-old Spanish king took the throne on June 19th, after the abdication of his father Juan Carlos, who visited Rabat in 2013.

Spain ruled parts of Morocco and the Western Sahara during the colonial era, and still holds its two North African territories of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean, despite the longstanding objections of Rabat.

But the neighbours have enjoyed good relations in recent years — Spain is Morocco's top economic partner alongside France — and Madrid and Rabat signed a new cooperation accord in June worth 150 million euros, for the period 2014-2016.

They have also worked together closely to deter the rising number of sub-Saharan would-be immigrants trying to reach Spanish soil.

The human rights group Amnesty International recently criticized Spain for its spending on border control, saying it outweighed by thirty times the spending on assistance to would-be immigrants. 

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Morocco puts brakes on migrant flow as Spain and EU pay out

The number of migrants arriving by sea in Spain has plunged with Morocco stopping boat departures since signing lucrative agreements with Madrid and Brussels, experts say.

Morocco puts brakes on migrant flow as Spain and EU pay out
Migrants climbed over the fence in Ceuta to reach Spain earlier this month.Photo: AFP

So far this year 15,683 migrants have arrived by sea, 45 percent down on the first eight months of 2018, according to Spanish interior ministry figures.   

Spain became the main entry point for migrants seeking a better life in Europe in 2018 after Italy closed its ports and Greece began sending migrants back to Turkey under a 2016 agreement with the European Union (EU).

But that is no longer the case. The most used migrant sea route to Europe is once again from the  eastern Mediterranean to Greece,  the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says.

Moroccan authorities are stopping boats from setting sail to Spain “whereas before they let them leave”, said Jose Encinas of the AUGC Guardia Civil police association in the southern region of Andalusia where most migrants

A migration expert at an international organisation, who asked not to be named, said: “Moroccan maritime police have deployed means at strategic spots, especially in the north” to curb migrant departures to Spain.

'Migration card'

Eduard Soler, a North Africa geopolitics specialist at Barcelona think tank CIDOB said “Morocco has realised that the migration card is a very effective pressure tool”.

“Times when bilateral relations between Morocco and Spain were difficult have coincided with a rise in (migrant) arrivals in Spain and when they have improved there was a dramatic drop (in arrivals),” he added.

The arrival of migrant ships in Spain had soared in the six months before Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez took power in June 2018.   

He promptly dispatched ministers to Rabat before visiting the Moroccan capital himself in November for talks with King Mohammed VI.   

A state visit followed in February 2019 by Spain's King Felipe VI abd 11 bilateral agreements were signed covering energy to cultural cooperation.   

“There was then a radical drop in the number of migrant arrivals. This does not seem like chance. Morocco decided to change its policy” said Soler.   

The number of migrant arrivals by sea fell to 936 in February 2019 from 4,104 in the previous month,  IOM figures show.   

“When Morocco wants more money, it opens the tap of immigration and when it receives money, it closes it,” said Encinas.   

Spain in August approved €32 million ($35 million) to help Morocco control illegal migration.

In July, Madrid authorised spending €26 million to supply Morocco's interior ministry with vehicles.

EU money

A renegotiated fisheries agreement between Morocco and the European Union– which was approved by the European Parliament in February on the eve of King Felipe's state visit — has also warmed ties between Brussels and Rabat.   

On a visit to Morocco on Wednesday, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska hailed the “police cooperation” between the two countries which had led to a “significant decrease” in migrant arrivals.

Within the EU, Madrid continues to highlight “Morocco's crucial importance as a strategic partner for migration and other issues,” he added.   

The EU gave Morocco €140 million last year to help manage migration.    

“And that seems little,” Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said last week, before adding Europe should do more for Morocco.   

While Madrid praises its cooperation with Rabat, human rights groups accuse Morocco of forcibly preventing migrants form boarding boats to Spain.

By AFP's Laurence Boutreux 

READ MORE: Ceuta: 155 migrants force entry into Spanish enclave