The Madrid headquarters of Casa Árabe, an institutional public diplomacy consortium, led by Spain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. FOTO CASA ÁRABE
Spain and the Maghreb
The Maghreb, a region of North Africa comprising Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, has long been a priority of Spanish foreign policy. Factors such as geographical proximity, historical links and substantial human, economic and cultural exchanges have favoured and driven relations with Spain's southern neighbours.

Since early 2011, the Maghreb has been undergoing a far-reaching transformation. The discontent of a largely young population with the unstable social and economic conditions in the region grew into calls for more open politics, resulting in processes of change, transition and reform.


Tunisia was the first country to go through this process and is now considered a model example of the Arab Spring due to both the level of consensus between the different political stakeholders—as reflected in the Constitution of 2014—and the limited unrest during the transition. The transition begun in January 2011 culminated in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014, which removed Ben Ali from power after a term of 23 years. Nonetheless, the transition is still fragile. The terrorist attacks in the Bardo Museum, Sousse and Tunis in 2015 have negatively affected the country's economic recovery, and above all its important tourism industry.


The transition in Libya, which began with the revolution of 17 February 2011 and the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi in October of the same year, has resulted in violence and fragmentation. The country is suffering from serious problems in terms of governability and security. Spain supports the United Nations’ efforts to mediate in the conflict and organised the Ministerial Conference on Stability and Development in Libya, held in Madrid in September 2014, attended by representatives of 21 countries and delegations.


Moreover, Morocco and Algeria have also followed their own paths of reform following the Arab Spring of 2011, to different degrees. King Mohammed VI of Morocco started a process of political reform, and on 1 July 2011 a reform which liberalised the country's constitution was approved by a comfortable majority in a referendum. That same year, in the November parliamentary elections, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party won a majority of the vote for the first time, forming a coalition government involving Istiqlal—replaced by RNI as the key coalition partner in September 2013—the Popular Movement, and the PPS. The first regional and municipal elections were held in October 2015, as set out in the new advanced regionalisation plan. In Algeria, a programme of political reforms was launched in April 2011, including new electoral legislation. The presidential elections of April 2014 were won by Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Internal political debate is currently focused on constitutional reform.


In Mauritania, President Abdel Aziz was elected for a second term as president in June 2014, in a general climate of stability. Reforms of the country's armed forces and police, the fight against severe poverty and the commitment to strategies to combat radicalisation have all helped to prevent terrorist attacks in the years following 2011.


In Western Sahara, Spain supports a fair, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for self-determination by the Sahrawi people in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. Spain, as the largest bilateral donor of aid to the area's refugee camps, backs the key role of the United Nations in seeking a solution, and maintains its humanitarian commitment to the people of Western Sahara.


The strong links between Spain and the Maghreb have been consolidated in recent years by signing treaties of friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation with Morocco (1991), Tunisia (1995) and Algeria (2002) as well as a MoU on Political Consultation with Mauritania (2015). Spain maintains an active political dialogue with these countries. Bilateral relations are complemented by periodic High Level Meetings with Morocco and Algeria and political consultations with Tunisia and Mauritania. What is more, ministers and senior officials frequently pay visits to discuss matters of mutual interest, or concerning the international agenda.


On the economic front, Spain also has strong ties with the Maghreb. Trade and investment relations are particularly important with Morocco and Algeria:


- In 2012, Spain became Morocco’s main trading partner, and it is the top destination for Spanish exports in Africa and the Arabic world, with more than 20,000 Spanish companies operating in the country.

- In 2013 and 2014, Spain was Algeria's top trading partner, with a volume of trade exceeding $15 billion, most notably in the energy sector.


The Maghreb is one of Spain's key energy suppliers. Spain imports approximately 45% of its gas from the region, which has long distorted the balance of trade.


Security in the region is a shared concern for Spain and the countries of the Maghreb. Organised crime, trafficking and international terrorism in the Sahel and Libya are a direct threat to the entire Mediterranean region. Spanish authorities are therefore working with their Maghrebi counterparts to identify and reduce risks and cooperate on political and legal issues to combat impunity.


The need to manage migratory flows has also led to the signing of agreements with countries in the Maghreb, a way station and transit zone for many immigrants who dream of reaching Europe. In this regard, Spain supports the new migration policies of the countries in the region, such as Morrocco's. There has also been collaboration on this issue with Mauritania.


The drive to form ever closer links between Spain and the Maghreb must necessarily include cultural initiatives; the greater the mutual understanding, the more effectively relations of any kind can be strengthened. The nine offices of Instituto Cervantes in the region (six of which are located in Morocco), and the activities organised by Casa Árabe in Madrid and Cordoba, and by Casa del Mediterráneo in Alicante and Benidorm, foster understanding and trust in this regard.


Spain also plays a crucial role in the Euro-Mediterranean region, making decisive contributions to the inclusion of Maghrebi matters on the European Union's agenda. The stronger relations with the region have been greatly reinforced in recent years through EU Partnership Agreements with Tunisia (1995), Morocco (1996) and Algeria (2002), while Mauritania is a signatory of the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement.


In terms of the European Neighbourhood Policy, Morocco is the most advanced southern neighbour, as reflected by its signing of the Advanced Statute in 2008 and the 2013-2017 EU-Morocco Action Plan. In the first half of 2010, during the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the EU-Morocco Summit was held in Granada, the only such event to date. Morocco is also the main beneficiary of neighbourhood assistance, and a pioneer in negotiating new agreements concerning migration, fisheries and trade.


These bilateral and European partnerships are bolstered by regional cooperation initiatives such as the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) and the 5+5 Dialogue, which have fostered political consultation and sector cooperation between the two sides of the Mediterranean. There is also multilateral cooperation, particularly at the level of the United Nations, on whose Security Council Spain holds a non-permanent seat for the 2015-2016 term.


Spain has undertaken joint initiatives with Algeria related to water resources under the auspices of 5+5, and with Morocco concerning mediation within the United Nations.

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