The tunnel between Morocco and Spain, an old dream back on the table

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Madrid (AFP) – In limbo for years, Spain and Morocco have just dusted off the project to unite both countries, and Europe and Africa, through a tunnel under the sea, but the obstacles are numerous.

Launched in 1979 by the King of Morocco Hassan II and King Juan Carlos I of Spain, this tunnel project through the Mediterranean Sea, under the Strait of Gibraltar, aims to link Africa and Europe by train.

Two state companies, one Moroccan (Sned) and the other Spanish (Secegsa), led by a mixed committee, were created to study the feasibility of this project, which has been the subject of numerous drilling, studies and tests in the last 40 years.

After considering various alternatives, these companies opted at the end of the 1990s for a tunnel drilled under the sea, based on the model of the tunnel under the English Channel, with Malabata, in the Bay of Tangier (Morocco), and Punta Paloma. , near Tarifa (Spain), as entry and exit points.

The project, considered one of the most ambitious in the world, would consist of two railway tunnels and a service and rescue gallery. It would be 38.5 kilometers long, 28 of them under the sea, with a maximum depth of 475 meters.

What are your goals?

By linking the rail networks of both countries, the tunnel would function as “a catalyst for the European and African economy,” Claudio Olalla, an engineer and professor emeritus at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, who worked on the project for a while, told AFP.

According to Secegsa, the work would allow the transit of more than 13 million tons of merchandise and 12.8 million passengers a year, which “could contribute greatly to the economic development” of the western Mediterranean.

Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch (right) shakes hands with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at a high-level meeting in Rabat on February 2, 2023.
Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch (right) shakes hands with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at a high-level meeting in Rabat on February 2, 2023. © AFP

In fact, Spain is Morocco’s main trading partner, which exports a large part of its production, especially agricultural production, to the European Union.

But the Strait of Gibraltar, through which 100,000 ships pass a year, is already congested, restricting the movement of goods between the two countries.

Why is he recovering now?

The project had stalled in recent years due to budget cuts in Spain following the 2008 financial crisis and a succession of diplomatic spats between Madrid and Rabat.

But relations have normalized since Madrid agreed last year to support Moroccan positions in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. This has led the two countries to reactivate various bilateral issues.

Thus, an item was released in the Spanish budget for 2023 to finance a new “necessary” study to “be in a position to start the construction processes of the work.”

And the relaunch of the project was discussed by both countries, according to Madrid, during the Rabat summit on February 2.

Passengers disembark from a ferry from the Spanish town of Tarifa in the Moroccan port of Tangier on June 15, 2022.
Passengers disembark from a ferry from the Spanish town of Tarifa in the Moroccan port of Tangier on June 15, 2022. © Fadel Senna / AFP / Files

“We are going to give a boost to the studies” of this “strategic project”, also declared the Spanish Minister of Transport, Raquel Sánchez, when announcing the resumption of the meetings of the committee that brings together the Sned and Secegsa.

What are the obstacles to its realization?

The main problem is technical: the Strait of Gibraltar, located at the limit of the European and African tectonic plates, is characterized by a complex geology, with portions of unstable clayey soils and violent marine currents.

“The quality of the soils involved is very mediocre. Nothing to do with the limestone they have in La Mancha,” explained Olalla, for whom “the technical conditions are very adverse, far superior” to those faced by “any other tunnel made in the world so far”.

This situation is likely to weigh on the cost of the project, which has never been precisely quantified. “Technically, the obstacles are not insurmountable, but their economic viability is a matter of concern,” the engineer estimated.

To these problems must be added the political obstacles linked to the cyclical instability of relations between Madrid and Rabat and the possible reluctance of European countries, which might fear -mistakenly, according to the promoters of the project- a wave of migration.

This makes its launch in the short or medium term unlikely. “I think the project will go ahead one day, but it won’t happen soon,” Olalla said.

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Written by Editor TLN

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