Spain and Western Sahara: an abrupt U-turn
On 18 March 2022, Spain made a U-turn in its relations with Morocco which, according to the Spanish government, “puts an end to the political crisis”. This longstanding diplomatic row was linked to fundamentally different views on the issue of Western Sahara, a former Spanish territory annexed by Morocco in 1975.
Spain is now supporting the plan for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, stating that it is the “most serious, credible and realistic” way to resolve the conflict. Spain thus joins, even more explicitly, countries such as France and Germany. This change of doctrine is not unrelated to the migration issue and the pressure that Morocco exerted following the presence in Spain of the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali, for COVID-related treatment in April-May 2021. A month later, the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on the northern coast of Morocco, was facing a massive arrival of migrants after Morocco relaxed its border surveillance. This decision, which the Spanish Minister of Defence described at the time as “blackmail”, is part of a pattern where Morocco uses migration to try to force Europe to accept its position on Western Sahara.
Algeria did not fail to react to this new Spanish position by recalling its ambassador, which risks provoking a persistent crisis between Spain and Algeria, one of the EU’s main suppliers of gas (40% of the gas imported by Spain), at a time when the EU is looking for alternatives to Russian. Given Russia’s desire to add Ukraine to its sphere of influence, Spain’s position risks putting the EU at odds with the European willingness to defend an international order based on common principles, thus opening the door to accusations of “double standards”.
Embarrassed by the revelation, by the Moroccan side, of the content of the letter from Pedro Sànchez’s government to Mohammed VI, the new Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, met with the UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara, Staffan De Mistura, and reaffirmed Spain’s support for a “mutually agreed solution in the framework of the United Nations”. Spain denied that its decision represented a fundamental policy change, although it described it as a “historic turning point” for bilateral relations with Morocco. The art of adding confusion to uncertainty…