Closer ties: Spain, Morocco sign raft of accords

Stronger ties despite differences on some thorny political issues

RABAT, Morocco - Spain and Morocco signed a raft of cooperation accords on Wednesday, during a top-level Spanish visit to the north African nation headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who hailed the warming bilateral ties.
Eight accords were signed during the intergovernmental meeting, the tenth between the two countries and the first since 2008, including the simplification of visa procedures. Others covered cooperation in tourism, sport, education and transport.
"I am convinced that these (bilateral) relations, which are getting stronger and stronger... will benefit" from the visit, Rajoy was quoted as saying by the official MAP news agency after meeting King Mohammed VI in Marrakesh.
The Spanish premier earlier met his counterpart Abdelilah Benkirane in the capital, during a day of meetings between the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, justice, education, agriculture and energy.
Benkirane said the joint projects between Spain and Morocco should help the two countries to overcome the effects of the current economic crisis.
At a joint press conference, at the end of a day, Rajoy and Benkirane underlined the need for "deep, solid and fruitful" bilateral relations.
They had earlier attended a business forum for leading Spanish and Moroccan employers.
The Spanish visit, which also marks two decades since the signing of a friendship treaty, comes at a critical time for the two countries, both rocked by economic crises, and despite their historic differences.
Differences over the tiny north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, held by Spain for more than 400 years but considered occupied by Rabat, are a recurrent bone of contention.
But a sit-in called for Wednesday morning outside the Spanish consulate by the "Committee for the Liberation of Ceuta and Melilla" was banned, one of the organisers said.
Stemming the flow of illegal sub-Saharan immigrants, a top political priority for Spain in its dealings with Morocco, remains a potentially divisive issue that has also resulted in surprisingly close cooperation, including last month.
Another thorny issue, the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony which Rabat annexed in 1975 in a move never recognised by the international community, was brushed aside by Benkirane earlier.
"We cannot meet our Spanish counterparts without speaking about the Sahara. But now is not the appropriate moment to make statements on the subject," he told reporters.
Differences apart, the prospects for closer cooperation are promising, with around 20,000 small- and medium-sized Spanish businesses exporting to Morocco, and with Spain hosting the second-largest Moroccan expatriate community, of around one million.
With its own expertise in the field, Madrid is particularly interested in Morocco's ambitious renewable energy plans, which envisage the construction of five major solar power plants by 2020.
"I call on the Spanish to profit from this market and develop the economies of the two countries," Rajoy said at the press conference.