Europe and Northern Africa: Spain- Morocco as a blueprint


In this article we discuss the reasons that led Spain to change its stance on the issue of Western Sahara, the benefits that Spain could achieve.

We will focus on the Spanish support for Rabat in its position and influence on this topic. While Madrid’s decision collides with the stance of its ally Algeria, we are discussing Algeria’s response and its position regarding these developments.

Morocco and Spain exploring alternatives for Russian natural gas in the Western Sahara

Spain has changed its stance from a non-aligned to a supporter of the Moroccan stance. We can look at this as a historical turn that will reflect on the long term conflict, affecting relations between Morocco and Algeria which stand on opposite sides in the issue of the Western Sahara’s independence. The Spanish position will also directly affect the relations between Europe and North African countries, at a time when the importance of this region is increasing due to the Western quest searching for alternatives to Russian gas.

On the other hand, many political parties are not satisfied with the decision taken by the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, because they consider it as acquiescence to Morocco, especially since the Spanish stance does not aim to reform the situation in Western Sahara, but rather seeks to restore relations with Morocco, which were badly damaged due to Spain’s decision to let Ibrahim Ghaly, the leader of Polisario, enter the country, in order to recover from Covid-19 infection using Algerian documents in April 2021.[1]

This is what pushed Morocco to take several decisions that could negatively affect the Spanish economy; it also destabilized the existing security cooperation between the two countries, especially regarding immigration.

The Western Sahar extends over an area of 252,000 km on the northwest coast. It is a sparsely populated area, with a population of 567,000 people, according to UN statistics, however it is rich in phosphates and fishery resources.

Morocco controlled 80 per cent of the territory and states that Western Sahara was an integral part of its territory.

Morocco does not oppose granting Western Sahara autonomy, provided it remains under Moroccan sovereignty, while the Polisario front, with the support of Algeria, was insisting on a referendum on self-determination, as provided for in the 1991 ceasefire agreement.

Moroccan Migration Haunts Spain

Spain has always been a good mediator between conflicting parties, as it has always supported UN efforts, due to its historical role as previous colonizer.

In addition, it has strategic interests with its partners in the southern Mediterranean, especially Morocco and Algeria.[2]

It seems that Spain has changed stance to win Morocco’s favor, after a year in which the relation between them was strained, since Spain allowed the leader of the Polisario Front to receive treatment on its soil. Morocco responded by easing its border controls, which prompted about ten thousand immigrants to enter the city of Ceuta, a Spanish exclave on Moroccan soil.

 This decision, described by the Spanish Defense Minister as “blackmail”, accusing Morocco using to force Europe accepting its stance on Western Sahara.[3]

Morocco, Reviving Spanish Ports

The Rabat government had taken a decision to stop the passage of Moroccan migrants through Spanish ports on their way to or from their country.

Hence, the only transit points were French and Italian ports. Spain claimed that the decision was taken due to increasing Covid 19 cases in the country. However, it is believed that the decision was a reflection of the political tension between the two countries, which has affected workers, businesses, gas stations, hotels, restaurants and travel agencies in Spain.

In this context, José Ignacio Landalos, a Senator of the Popular Party and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed his hope that the current rapprochement in relations between Spain and Morocco will lead to the restoration of passenger traffic.[4]

Due to the Spanish decision, the Green Island and Tarifa ports in the province of Kadesh have lost around €40m since 2020. The Spanish government therefore considers the reopening of passenger traffic will be “good news, positive and absolutely necessary” for the resumption of normal traffic in the Strait of Gibraltar.[5]

On May 5th 2022, Morocco and Spain ended the agreement on the logistical conditions for the “Marhaba 2022” operation. On May 17, 2022, Moroccan and Spanish authorities opened the land borders of the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, after two years of closure.

The impact of the Ukrainian war on the conflicting parties

Due to the political uncertainty and instability caused by the Russian Ukrainian war, Spain started to work on solving its problems on the southern bank of the Mediterranean. In this regard, the President of the Andalusia Information and Communication Foundation, Said Ada Hassan, recalled the months-old skirmishes by Polisario, adding that Spain had advanced its strategic interests with Morocco over its current interests with Algeria, as expressed by the Spanish Foreign Minister when he asserted that the Government of Algeria was a trusted, Morocco a strategic partner.

Risks of extortion and involvement between Morocco and Algeria

The Spanish Government’s recent positions can be considered as a risk. As it may become subject to future blackmail, both by Morocco and by Algeria. A Spanish newspaper wrote that “Pedro Sánchez’s government covered its head but at the same time revealed its feet.”

In the midst of the conflict between Algeria and Morocco, and in the same way as Morocco used the migration tap to pressure Spain, Algeria would do the same with gas, according to the newspaper, which could jeopardize natural gas supplies at a hard time, with high gas and oil prices due to the Ukrainian crisis.

In 2021, Algeria was Spain’s largest gas supplier, sending 43 per cent of total consumption.

Madrid’s acceptance of Morocco’s terms this time may prompt Rabat to return the ball in other files, especially with many border disputes between both countries regarding the cities of Ceuta and Melilla and the maritime boundary with the Canary Islands, at a time when Morocco announced oil discoveries close to the disputed areas.[6]

Developments in Algeria’s attitude towards Moroccan-Spanish rapprochement

The Government of Algeria and Polisario rejected the Spanish stance. The Algerian ambassador was summoned from Madrid to consult, while Polisario leader Ibrahim Gali considered Madrid’s position “unfortunate and shameful, because it is illegal and immoral.”[7]

The Spanish decision comes weeks after Madrid and Algeria signed gas supply agreements following Algeria’s suspension of the gas pipeline passing from Morocco, resulting in the severance of relations between the two countries. Morocco was getting financial revenues from this pipeline for passing over its territories, moreover, it was getting annual quantities of natural gas being used to operate two power plants in the north and east of the country.[8]

Given the recent rise in global energy prices, Russia may be happy to push Algeria in this direction to restrict Europe’s ability to halt its Russian energy imports. Europe relies on Algeria in other important areas, including cooperation to counter terrorism in the coastal area. Madrid’s decision could seriously disrupt such cooperation.

The relationship between Spain and Algeria is getting more complex, as Algeria’s gas exports to Spain decreased by more than half, after Madrid adopted the autonomy initiative, and Spain announced that it would start exporting natural gas to Morocco in reverse through the Maghreb-European gas pipeline, which was delivering Algerian gas to Spain.

The operation of that pipeline stopped in late October 2021. Algeria threatened to terminate its contract with Madrid, if Algerian gas was exported to Morocco. On the other hand, Spain turned to the US to secure its natural gas needs.

Trade in favour of Morocco

Although the return of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Spain will have a positive impact on trade between both countries, it will be more in Morocco’s interest than Spain’s, as Moroccan competition is a point in its favour, according to observers.[9]

The Vice-President of the Canary Confederation of Entrepreneurs, Jose Cristobal Garcia, said that the islands “are in a good position to deal with Morocco, as evidenced by the presence of Canarian companies, especially in the port of Agadir.” However, these companies face great competition, an example of which is Moroccan tomato exports.

Garcia points out that stability is important in the trade relations between both countries, however, he stressed that France would be a dominant economic factor in Morocco. The Spanish government is hoping that restoring relations with Rabat will lead to economic recovery, especially in the border cities near Morocco, depending on trade with Morocco.

Polisario sources considered that Morocco is plundering the wealth of Western Sahara, in collusion with Spain and the European Union, to obtain fish, mineral and animal resources at cheap prices.

Western Sahara in Exchange for Ceuta and Melilla?

Some parties talked about the possibility of a Moroccan/Spanish secret deal, represented by Morocco relinquishing its claim to the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in exchange for recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara region.

However, Hassan Balwan, an expert in international relations, rules this out, saying: “Morocco cannot give up its right to take back the two cities,” adding that “Morocco postpones discussion on this issue, and it is a well-known policy since independence.“

After the restoration of relations between them, Spain and Morocco set a date for the start of talks on one of the most important issues related to the common borders, including the territorial waters claimed by the Polisario Front, and Spanish Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande Marlasca, has set next June as the date for the most important issue in the “new phase.”[10]

While Spain announced its support for the Moroccan autonomy proposal for Western Sahara, sources indicate that the European judicial system confirms that some waters belonging to the territory of Western Sahara cannot be included in these negotiations, and the natural resources found in these waters contribute to making them one of the main negotiating points.

According to the sources, the non-participation of Polisario, which severed its relations with the Spanish government in protest of Madrid’s change of its official position, would mean a direct recognition by Spain of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The Polisario Front had said in a statement last month, “that the Front decided to suspend its contacts with the current Spanish government in order to distance itself from using the Sahara cause in the context of miserable bargains with the occupier.”

The impact of Spanish stance on the future of conflict in Western Sahara

Spain will have a great impact on the future of Western Sahara, first at the European level, especially since Madrid will chair the European Union in 2023, as well as its impact on the Friends of the Sahara Group, which includes four countries in the Security Council. The Spanish stance will also extend to Latin America, where many countries, often aligned with Polisario, are influenced by Spain’s stance.[11]

At a time when the Personal Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for the Sahara, Staffan de Mistura, began to push the political process forward, Moroccan diplomacy seemed to be in a position of strength, especially after the change in the Spanish and accompanying Arab and African stances, when the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry announced on May 9, his country would support the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Morocco and its commitment to an international solution to the Sahara issue.

This is the same position expressed by Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Guinea, Niger, Central Africa and European countries. During the past weeks, the list of countries supporting the Moroccan proposal to grant autonomy to the Sahara witnessed a remarkable expansion, with the announcement of Germany joining the United States and France, which consider the Moroccan proposal “serious and credible.”

Moroccan diplomacy is yielding positive results, after a series of studied measures, with the emergence of the great roles that Morocco plays in a number of important international cases, such as combating terrorism and extremism, addressing illegal immigration and contributing to resolving a number of regional issues and disputes. In a speech to the nation last November, King Mohammed VI of Morocco had warned that “Morocco will not enter into any economic or commercial approach with countries“ that would exclude the Moroccan Sahara.

“States wishing to resolve the Sahara conflict are required to engage in the autonomy initiative as the only possible solution to the Sahara issue in order to end the suffering of the detainees in the Tindouf camps,” Moroccan Foreign Minister said. Tindouf hosts a group of refugee camps, established in the Algerian state of Tindouf in 1975-1976 to house Sahrawi refugees fleeing the Moroccan army, which advanced through Western Sahara during the war.

What are the implications of this Moroccan/Spanish rapprochement on the relationship with the European Union? And how will the conflict between Algeria and Morocco on the one hand, Algeria and the European Union on the other hand be affected in the light of the Russian-Ukrainian war?

  • [1]                 According to the Independent March 22 2022.
  • [2]                 According to Alhurra Website, March 19 2022.
  • [3]                 Der European Council on Foreign Relations March 23, 2022
  • [4]                 Al-Quds Al-Arabi Journal March, 22, 2022
  • [5]                 Español Journal, March, 25, 2022.
  • [6]                 The Independent March 21, 2022.
  • [7]                 France24 March 19 2022
  • [8]                 Anadolo Agency April 29 2022.
  • [9]                 El Pais Journal March 25.
  • [10]              Hespress March 22, 2022
  • [11]              Publico Journal May 13 2022.

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