Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco-Spain Tunnel: An Old Project, Reconsidered

The Morocco-Spain tunnel shows a mutual commitment to overcoming past challenges and achieving regional development and economic integration.

Morocco-Spain Tunnel
Border fence encircling Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta which lies on the Strait of Gibraltar, surrounded by Morocco. FADEL SENNA / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

It is expected that a series of meetings will convene In June 2024, bringing together Moroccan and Spanish experts in a joint committee dedicated to the continental linkage project, which aims to connect North Africa with Western Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar.

During these meetings, a detailed action plan for 2024-2026 will be presented, targeting the project’s completion before the 2030 FIFA World Cup, which Morocco, Portugal and Spain will co-host.

This three-year work plan was developed by two government companies established specifically for this project in Morocco and Spain.

According to the National Company for the Study of the Strait of Gibraltar (SNED) in Morocco, the plan includes procedures to examine the geological formations of the Earth’s substrata, which will determine the tunnel’s path beneath the strait. The plan will also launch studies to assess the project’s environmental, economic and social impacts, in collaboration with academic and technical institutes with relevant expertise.

The Idea’s History and its Development since 1979

The idea of a continental connection between Spain and Morocco is not a recent development. In fact, it has captured the interest of officials in both countries for over 45 years, yet the project has never come to fruition. The first serious discussions occurred during a meeting between the late Moroccan King Hassan II and Spanish King Juan Carlos I on June 16, 1979.

A few months after that meeting, the enthusiasm of the Moroccan and Spanish leaders led to the establishment of two public companies in each country to conduct economic feasibility studies. In the same year, a scientific and technical cooperation agreement between the two countries was signed, providing a legal framework for the project. This agreement mandated the sharing and comparison of technical studies from both sides to aid in decision-making.

Over the years, successive plans have been proposed for establishing a continental connection, including constructing a bridge on floating or fixed supports. However, concerns about obstructing maritime traffic and the risk of accidents in the heavily trafficked Strait of Gibraltar led to these proposals being dismissed in favor of an underwater tunnel.

Studies conducted since then indicate that the project would involve digging a 27.6-kilometer tunnel, most of it underwater, facilitating travel from Punta Paloma in Spain to the Malabata region in northern Morocco in about half an hour.

The project plans include separate lines for freight and passenger trains, as well as lanes for trucks and cars. The estimated cost of the project is $10 billion, roughly two-thirds of the cost of the Channel Tunnel, which was around $15 billion.

Political Crises Stalled the Project for 45 Years

To understand the political dynamics that have surrounded this project for the past 45 years, it is important to return to the fundamental issues affecting Spanish-Moroccan relations, which have always been characterized by mutual doubts and obsessions. The implementation of such a mega-project requires a minimum level of political stability between countries to reassure private companies considering investment.

Despite the establishment of two government companies and the completion of economic feasibility studies, this project has not witnessed significant progress since 1979. Although the project has not been officially closed, Moroccan and Spanish authorities have refrained from taking the necessary steps to implement it.

The primary reason for the recurring disputes between the two parties is the border conflicts in a region with sensitive islands and sea waters critical to maritime shipping lines. In 2002, these disputes escalated to direct military confrontation when the Moroccan army landed on the disputed island of Perejil (Leila), raising the Moroccan flag.

Spain responded with a counter-landing supported by large naval forces, resulting in the arrest of Moroccan soldiers, who were later handed back to Morocco. Without the direct intervention of the United States, these events could have escalated into a larger military conflict.

In addition, Morocco has consistently complained about Spain’s stance on the Western Sahara issue.

Before 2022, Moroccan authorities perceived hidden Spanish support for the Western Sahara separatists, particularly during Spain’s presidency of the U.N. Security Council in 2003. Tensions peaked in 2021 when Morocco withdrew its ambassador from Madrid after Spanish authorities hosted prominent separatist leaders from Western Sahara.

Morocco responded by granting political asylum to former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who is being pursued by the Spanish judiciary after his secessionist attempt in 2017. However, the disagreements over Western Sahara began to subside after 2022, when Spain officially endorsed the Moroccan initiative for “self-governance,” which Rabat proposed as a realistic basis for resolving its conflict with the separatists.

Amid these issues, Spain has remained concerned about illegal immigration and smuggling across the border, often publicly accusing Moroccan authorities of using these issues to exert pressure. Spain has viewed this as a tactic by Morocco to gain political leverage in other areas, such as border disputes or sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Given all these disputes, which have affected border security and diplomatic relations, it is unsurprising that a large, strategic project like the continental connection between Spain and Morocco has been stalled for the past 45 years. However, a convergence of political and economic interests has recently motivated both countries to revive this project.

Reviving the Project

Recently, a collaborative effort among local and regional stakeholders has revitalized and reactivated the project. The most notable supporter is the European Union’s General Commission, which in 2023 provided complete funding to re-examine the project and develop feasibility studies. This funding facilitated the preparation of a general plan set to be presented in 2024 when the joint committee overseeing the project convenes.

European countries have a vested interest in this project, which aims to integrate European industries with Morocco’s rapidly growing industrial supply chains. Over recent years, Morocco has significantly increased its production of imports and essential components for the automotive and electronics industries, thanks to government initiatives supporting industrial infrastructure. This project promises to lower shipping costs for these imports to European factories.

The continental connection will complement European efforts to mitigate the risks of dependency on China, especially in industrial supply chains. Simultaneously, it will reduce the cost of exporting European goods to African markets, amid China and Russia’s competitive efforts to influence the continent.

Morocco’s initiatives to enhance its shipping and transportation infrastructure with other African countries amplify the project’s importance, providing the European Union with a strategic route to African markets through Morocco.

For Morocco, the project aligns with its goals of building a robust industrial sector, leveraging its strategic location between Africa and Europe, on the Atlantic Ocean’s eastern shore. Moroccan authorities anticipate that investments in their industrial sector will triple by 2026, necessitating cost-effective export routes to European markets.

The last three years have seen relative stability in Spanish-Moroccan relations, partly due to Spain’s positive stance on the Western Sahara issue. This stability has removed previous obstacles that hindered the project’s progress. Morocco’s political stability, in contrast to many Arab and African nations, is an attractive factor for foreign investment, encouraging Spain to support the project’s activation.

The momentum from both Morocco and Europe is driving the project forward. Morocco’s preparation to co-host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 with Spain and Portugal presents a pivotal opportunity to launch the project, dovetailing with Moroccan plans to upgrade local infrastructure in a manner similar to Qatar’s World Cup preparations, albeit with different financial capacities.

However, Spain and the European Union are likely to impose conditions on Morocco regarding the combatting of smuggling and illegal immigration before the project can proceed. Effective measures can be implemented to control tunnel access and prevent such issues post-completion.

Nonetheless, Spain will seek assurances on border security, which Morocco will need to address to move the project forward in the coming years.

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