Spain falls into line with Morocco on the Western Sahara conflict

Rabat has won the day. After a fifteen-month crisis with Madrid, Premier Pedro Sanchez has finally approved the Moroccan plan for the autonomy of Western Sahara. The idea is to put an end to the conflict without resorting to the self-determination referendum demanded by the Polisario Front with the backing of Algeria.

Rabat, 7 April 2022. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on official visit to Morocco welcomed by King Mohamed VI
Borja Puig de la Bellacasa/La Moncloa/AFP

In a letter written in French to King Mohamed VI dated 14 March 2022, Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez declares that “Spain considers the autonomy initiative undertaken by Morocco to be the most serious, realistic and credible basis for resolving the conflict” over Western Sahara. The Spanish people, including the members of his cabinet, learned of this new position four days later, when the Moroccan King released that letter. With it, Sanchez goes a bit further than France and Germany. The French Foreign Ministry has described the Moroccan plan as “a basis” and not as “the most serious basis “on which to hold”serious and credible talks". The nuance is an important one. Among Western democracies, only the United States have sided firmly with Morocco when they recognised, on 10 December 2020, its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Spain, like France, has always supported Morocco in the Sahara dispute, but Spanish diplomacy has never recognised this openly, always maintaining a pretence of neutrality. As proof of this discreet backing, the attorneys of the Spanish government have joined forces with those of several Moroccan associations to argue in favour of the legality of the fishing rights agreement between the European Union and Morocco before the General Court of the EU. To no avail: the Court struck them down at the end of September 2021.

For Morocco, that low-profile Spanish backing was not enough. Madrid had to confirm it publicly. Spain’s support is even more important as the country was once the colonial power ruling that territory, which is as large as the United Kingdom. And since Spain’s opinion in the matter is highly regarded, this decision may be imitated by other European and Latin American countries, or such is Morocco’s hope.

Morocco has spared no efforts to force the issue with Spain since 10 December 2020 when President Donald Trump recognised the “Moroccan character” of the Sahara. The same day, Morocco cancelled the summit talks between the two governments scheduled to begin on 17 December. This was only the first of a long list of misfortunes suffered by Spain.

Morocco manipulates the flow of migrants

The most important of these was the horde of over 10,000 illegal immigrants that swamped the city of Ceuta, on 17 and 18 May 2021. of whom 20% were minors, most of whom swam to reach the Spanish enclave and two of whom drowned on the way. There were other warning signals such as the prolonged shutdown of passenger traffic on ferries from Marseilles, Sète and Genoa bound for Moroccan ports via the Gibraltar Straits. The three million Moroccan expatriates who travel through Spain every year on their way home were collateral victims of Rabat’s decision.

As regards immigration, there has also been the uninterrupted arrival of harragas on the Canary Islands. During the first two months of the year, this has topped the previous record with an increase of 135% compared with the same period in 2021. All but one of the hulks that arrived in the archipelago came from Southern Morocco or the Western Sahara according to confidential reports from the Spanish Ministry of Interior Affairs. And Rabat had stopped taking back immigrants since March 2021. Before that they had only accepted them in dribs and drabs, 80 per week by plane, and only from Las Palmas (in the Canaries) to Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara.

At the beginning of March, a peak in migratory pressure was reached at Melilla which was the object of two massive and violent assaults by sub-Saharan migrants in which 53 guardias civiles were injured. On 2 March, some 2,500 of them were involved, an unprecedented number in the city’s history. All in all, 900 migrants managed to climb over the fence protecting a town of 85,000, with many Muslims. The sub-Saharans use violence only to force their way over the fence; once they are in the city, they pose no law-and-order problems.

Secret talks between ministers

The secret negotiations between Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares and his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita gained momentum following these migrant assaults. Miguel Ángel Moratinos, High Representative for the UN Alliance of Civilisations, has played an important role behind the scenes. When he was Spanish Foreign Minister, he encouraged Morocco to develop a plan for autonomy, according to US diplomatic dispatches disclosed by WikiLeaks in December 2010. When Rabat released its plan in 2007, Moratinos was disappointed, because it was insufficiently “generous” for the Saharawi people, according to the same source. The dividends for this Spanish turnabout began to appear on 7 April 2022. Pedro Sanchez flew to Rabat to partake of an iftar with the King. After that soirée the two parties issued a press release which, like the Sanchez letter, expressed Spain’s support for the autonomy project. The text is in 16 points and constitutes a roadmap for the formation of task forces to settle various disputes and, first, those dealing with territorial waters and airspace.

Concessions for Ceuta and Melilla

From article 3 of the press release and later declarations by the head of the Spanish government – but not from the Moroccan administration – the Spanish press deduced that Rabat has also made one concession: reopening its customs office in Melilla – which had been shut down without warning to Madrid on August 1, 2018, – and opening another in Ceuta where there had never been one since Moroccan independence in 1956. This twofold gesture, if it is confirmed, in no way means that Morocco recognises Spanish sovereignty over those two enclaves on the North-African coast, or even the “respect of territorial integrity” referred to by the Spanish government in its press releases. However, Morocco does seem prepared to stop asphyxiating them economically as it has been doing for the past six years or so.

Morocco’s inland frontiers with Ceuta and Melilla have been closed since March 2020, originally on account of the pandemic, then for political reasons. They are also soon to be reopened but under different conditions. Spain is determined to avoid the chaos that prevailed there up until two years ago. They were the busiest boundaries in Africa because people living in the adjacent provinces of Tetouan and Nador could cross over with just an ordinary ID. A good many illegal immigrants slipped though into those two cities, applied for asylum and once their request was recorded, they could travel quite legally to the Iberian Peninsula. “Those cities are virtual sieves” for immigration a police inspector who has worked there explained to me.

The worries of the Spanish Minister of Interior Affairs are echoed by the fears of the mayors of both cities. “Our hospitals were conceived for small cities. We can’t go back to the way things were before, when the emergency and maternity wards were crowded with Moroccans” insists over the phone Eduardo de Castro, mayor of Melilla, elected with the help of a local Muslim party. “Only three years ago, one of our hospital services was working as hard as the main hospital in Saragossa,” a city of 667,000, says a former city councillor.

The prevalent feeling among certain Spanish diplomats with a long experience working with Morocco is that Spain has won a truce but not eternal peace. In a few months, perhaps after the 2023 legislative elections, Rabat will be back with more demands. After all, that was what Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita implied, he wants Europe to “come out of its comfort zone” and follow the US example by fully recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Over crisis with Algeria

While Spanish diplomacy may have put an end to its crisis with Morocco, it has opened another can of worms with Algeria. The day after the publication of the Sanchez letter to the King, Algiers recalled Saïd Moussi, its ambassador in Madrid, for consultation. In the online journal TSA, Amar Belini, ambassador in charge of the Western Sahara for the Algerian Foreign Ministry, expressed his annoyance: “The Spain of Pedro Sanchez has lost its soul for a mess of potage,” he wrote.

The Algerian authorities also implied, in press releases, that they are going to stiffen their demands in the negotiations over the price of the gas Algeria supplies to Spain via the Medgaz pipeline. And the Transports Ministry has turned down Iberia airlines’ request to step up the frequency of its flights to Algiers.

On 24 March, to placate Algiers, the Spanish Minister of Interior Affairs deported, by special flight to Chief, Mohamed Benhlima, a corporal in the Algerian army, a refugee in Spain since 2019 whose extradition has been demanded by Algeria since he was sentenced to ten years in prison for terrorism. Close to the Islamist movement Rachad, Benhlima used YouTube to denounce the corruption that prevails in the Algerian armed forces. He was not granted asylum in Spain and is the first Algerian to be deported by plane as a token of Madrid’s good will. Until now the repatriation of Algerians had been accomplished solely by ship. And no other European country has deported Rachad activists.

A parliamentary motion disavows Sanchez

On the domestic front, Sanchez is paying a heavy price for his concession to Morocco. At the proposal of Podemos, the left-wing party in the ruling coalition, joined by two nationalist formations, one Basque and the other Catalan, the Cortes voted on Thursday 7 April, the very day when Sanchez flew to Rabat, a motion in support of the UN resolutions which made no mention of the autonomy plan. Seen as a disavowal of the Prime Minister, the motion was carried by 168 votes, including those of the right-wing Partido Popular. And Vox, the far-right party (51 votes), abstained so that Sanchez’s own Socialist party, found itself alone to oppose the motion with its 118 MPs. And some of these, when questioned on TV, admitted that they had had no alternative but to respect party discipline.

The result of this vote does not in any way herald a reversal of Spain’s position in the event the new leader of the PP, Alberto Nuñez Feijoo should come to power after the 2023 parliamentary election. It is most likely that to avoid another crisis with its Moroccan neighbour, Spanish diplomacy will continue to support the Moroccan plan for the autonomy of the Western Sahara.