The Western Mediterranean Trillema: Spain drop its Neutrality in the Western Sahara, Cheers Morocco and Angers Algeria

Spain and Morocco have agreed to resume their diplomatic relations through one of the biggest changes in the Spanish diplomacy in 40 years: abandoning its neutrality towards the Western Sahara issue and accepting the Moroccan plan of autonomy inside Moroccan territory (France24 2022), which is against the UN proposed plan.

This change in Spanish Foreign Policy its not casual and it happens in a moment of big geopolitical movements both from European countries and the European Union itself. The Ukrainian invasion has been a slap of reality for the European Union, which now wants to be responsible for its geopolitical necessities in a matter of days. This not only implies to well define who are its allies, who are not reliable or who are enemies, but also to know and design reliable structures to get basic resources, being its main concern the gas and oil supply. Also, as the Ukraine conflict is there to stay, the European countries and the EU want to limit or finish its diplomatic conflict in the periphery of its territory. And one of the main headaches was the dispute that Germany or Spain had with Morocco regarding the Western Sahara status.

The Morocco-Spain-Algeria Trilemma

Spain and Morocco saw how their relation was damaged during the last three years, mainly due to an aggressive attitude from the Moroccan side. They closed the custom border between its territory and the Spanish cities located in the north of Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, which damaged severely the economy of the region, which is based on the commerce of goods between both territories (Peregil 2021). Moroccan authorities also canceled the “Paso del Estrecho” operation (El Faro de Melilla 2022), which is the annual movement of Moroccans from Europe to Africa to visit their families during summer, which usually is coordinated by Spanish and Moroccan authorities. Meanwhile, Morocco reclaimed areas of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Spanish Canary Islands (Peregil-Abellan 2020), besides threatening, reclaiming, and making statements against the Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla (Cembrero 2022; EuropaSur 2022). The situation reached its lowest point when Moroccan authorities encouraged and allowed the irregular entrance of between 6000 to 9000 people to Ceuta y Melilla, being as much as 1500 of them minors (Moreno, 2021).

Although Morocco receives dozens of millions from the EU and Spain to control the irregular migration to Europe, Morocco decided to allow this dangerous movement of people to attack Spain, as Turkey or Belarus have done, in what some experts had defined as the “weaponization” of migration (Torreblanca 2021). Morocco did it against Ceuta and Melilla not because they reclaimed its sovereignty but because they wanted to punish Spain because of its assistance to the Western Saharan and Polisario Front lider, Brahim Gali, who was receiving treatment against COVID-19 in a Spanish hospital (Moreno 2021). As later known, Gali secretly travelled from Algeria, which is the main partner of the Polisario Front, to Logroño (a city in the north of Spain), which was considered by Morocco as an attack against its sovereignty over Western Sahara. Moreover, the Moroccan ambassador to Spain was recalled by her authorities.

According to the Spanish government, Spain’s diplomatic support for Morocco’s Sahara plan not only normalizes relations with its southern neighbour, but also ensures that Morocco affirms Spain’s sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla and the exclusive economic zone of the Canary Islands (Ramos 2022). However, this has not been confirmed by Morocco in its official statement announcing the new relations with Spain. In fact, according to the Spanish newspaper El País (Gonzalez 2022), the letter sent by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to Moroccan King Mohammed VI makes no mention of Ceuta y Melilla or its territorial integrity, nor does it mention any quid pro quo in exchange for Spain’s new position on Western Sahara.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government must contend with Algeria, which has denounced the agreement and recalled its ambassador to Madrid for consultations (Peregil 2022). Relations between the two countries, at least publicly, have been seriously damaged. The Algerian government has claimed that it was not informed of the joint Spanish-Moroccan announcement, although the Spanish government has claimed that it did warn Algeria of its intentions (Infolibre 2022). Finally, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, had to admit that Algeria was not informed of the change of position (Rico 2022). As a result, Algeria has recently announced that it will review all the agreements signed with Spain, including a price increase in the gas it buys from Algeria (ElEconomista 2022). It should not be forgotten that Algeria supplies 50% of the gas consumed in Spain and that, at the same time, it is Algeria’s second largest client, behind only Italy. Moreover, Algeria is highly dependent on the sale of energy resources, accounting 90% of its GDP (Prieto – Ojea 2022).

However, both the Spanish government and the expect that, due to the war in Ukraine and the need to find new gas suppliers, Algeria will not pass up the opportunity to supply as much gas as it can, not only through Italy but also through Spain, and may even reopen MEDGAZ. However, this seems a long way off, as such a decision would mean the end of Algeria’s historical support for the Polisario Front, and thus the end of one of the country’s weapons to threaten and dissuade Morocco. Such a move could make Algeria appear weak vis-à-vis Morocco, something the Algerians will want to avoid at all costs.

The fact is that Morocco-Algeria relations has been worsening in the last years, although they were already tense. As we explained before (Méndez 2021), this droves to sever its relations and to the closure of the GME pipeline, which provided gas to Spain and Portugal through Morocco. This supply was substituted through the MEDGAZ pipeline, that connect Algeria to Spain through the Mediterranean Sea, leaving Morocco without Algerian gas. However, the Ukrainian crisis and the necessity to relay less or not at all in Russian gas as bring back the necessity of finding new suppliers. To this end, MEDGAZ pipeline it is not enough and the reopen of MEG pipeline would be necessary.

Although Algeria seems to be interested in easing tensions with Morocco, perhaps with a view to a possible re-launch of MEDGAZ, it does not seem plausible that it would want to do so at the risk of appearing weak. Morocco feels extremely strong in the international context, as it has done nothing but score diplomatic victories in recent years. During the Trump administration, the US recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for reopening relations with Israel. In this way, Morocco has found in Israel a new partner with little social contestation, despite being an Arab country, and has also managed to ensure that the new US Biden administration does not withdraw its recognition of the Sahara (Méndez 2022) Recently, as mentioned above, it has opened a new chapter in relations with Germany, while also reopening diplomatic contacts with Spain. And this without taking its toll for its actions in the Sahara, its threats to Spanish sovereignty or its use of migrants and children against European borders.

Moreover, European funds and Spanish aid continue to flow to the Alawite country. As if this were not enough, Russia, one of the main Algeria’s partners, is mired in the conflict in Ukraine, which reduces its ability to help Algeria in the event of a clash with Morocco. Meanwhile, following the change in Spanish policy towards the Sahara, both Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have reaffirmed their support for the Moroccan autonomy plan and encouraged other European countries to follow Spain’s lead (EuropaPress 2022; El Mundo 2022)

Algeria is therefore in the position of either appearing weak, folding into Morocco’s final takeover of Western Sahara by abandoning the Polisario Front but doing business by selling gas to Europe on a massive scale, or becoming entrenched in its support for the Sahara, losing the opportunity to do business and perhaps finding itself in the position of having to attack Morocco to deter an attack by its neighbours. The latter option would not only be unfortunate for Morocco and Algeria, but extremely dangerous for Spain, Italy and Europe as a whole. A conflict between the two countries would affect the whole of North Africa and provoke a large-scale refugee movement, which would have to be dealt with in Southern Europe while managing the movement from Ukraine. In addition, it would provoke a possible intervention of Russia and the US in support of their allies. However, as unfortunate and perhaps unlikely as this scenario may be, it should not be completely ruled out. The security dilemmas and arms race between Algeria and Morocco have been going on for years and have only escalated since Morocco gained Israel as an ally and the US as a recogniser of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara.

This situation of Moroccan strength is not only dangerous for Algeria, but also for Spain. Morocco may feel strong enough to try to take Ceuta and Melilla, and it remains to be seen how Spain will react. If Spain recognises Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara, it will have few deterrents left to prevent them from going a step further and attacking Ceuta and Melilla.

Germany and the European Commission Cheers the Moroccan Solution

Germany had its diplomatic relations with Morocco damaged in 2020 due to the Western Sahara status, as Merkel’s government was opposed to recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. A series of diplomatic rifts ended with the withdrawal of the Moroccan ambassador to Germany. However, with the election of the new German Canciller, Herman Scholz, Morocco expressed its willing to solve their “misunderstandings” and to restore their relationship (Federal Foreign Office of Germany 2022), although Germany has not made a change in its official position regarding the Western Sahara status and its statement has been more diplomatic and neutral than the Spanish’ one.

As for the European Union as an institution, as well as for the other member states far away from Morocco and Algeria, Western Sahara and its status are of no interest except the economic one. Therefore, everything that could hinder good economic relations with Morocco should be solved as easily as possible. These countries do not see Morocco as a threat to their sovereignty or their borders. Since Morocco de facto controls most of the Saharawi territory, it is better to pursue a fait accompli policy that keeps Morocco as an ally aligned to the interests of the EU and the West in general, as stable as possible. Thinking that Algeria will surely want to sell as much gas as possible to the EU countries, the Commission and other EU partners would have given the go-ahead to the Spanish diplomatic change. In addition, given that more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in just a few weeks, the member countries and the EU would like to avoid the possible reopening of the Moroccan migration route from Africa, for which they need the Alawite authorities to be happy and aligned with the EU.

It’s not Clear Who Wins with this Change, Except Morocco

Even if the change in Spanish policy towards the Sahara occurred at the same time as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these two situations could not be entirely connected, but they could have been brewing since the end of last year, especially since the visit to Madrid, Algiers and Rabat by US Vice-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. The Americans are concerned about instability in the Mediterranean and Morocco’s complicated relations with its two main neighbours, Spain and Algeria. This is why, according to Pastor (2022), Biden administration would have put pressure on Spain and the European authorities to improve relations with Morocco, thus ensuring stability in the region, which would facilitate American investment in the Alawite country. In addition, the US is working on the difficult task of aligning the interests of Rabat, Algiers and Cairo with the help of Italy and Spain, two of the European countries with the greatest interests in the region (Pastor 2022).

It is also likely that the situation in the Sahel, where the fight against jihadism and the intervention of Western powers is going from bad to worse, has encouraged both Spain and European countries to strengthen their relationship with Morocco so that there is no doubt that it will act as a policeman on the migratory routes to the EU.

Supposedly, with this change in Spanish policy, all those involved would gain (except the Saharawis, although probably nobody thinks about them at the international level). However, as explained above, it remains to be seen whether the situation develops positively or whether it is too strong a shift that would create a security dilemma for Algeria, making it more prone to open conflict with Morocco, or whether the Alawite country decides that the fait accompli policy on the Sahara can also serve in the case of Ceuta and Melilla or the exclusive economic zone of the Canary Islands, creating an extremely dangerous situation for Spain.

In the meantime, it is far from clear that the change will be beneficial for Spain in the medium to long term, perhaps not even in the short term. Relations between Spain and Morocco have indeed been restored, but it is unclear at what cost. Spain loses the tools to deter Morocco’s interest in taking Ceuta and Melilla as well as part of the Canary Islands‘ EEZ. At the same time, it shows weakness vis-à-vis a country that has been unfriendly in recent years and has even used migrants as a weapon, without receiving any consequences for its actions, losing a tool related to a frozen conflict that helps Spain to maintain the status quo at least.

On the other hand, in a situation of rising energy prices and the need to find new gas suppliers due to the situation with Russia, Spain is losing ground to Algeria, with whom it has worsened relations due to its change of policy on the Sahara. For the moment, the Algerian ambassador in Madrid has been recalled and gas prices to Spain are set to rise. Moreover, Italy and Portugal, which also have interests in the region, have so far maintained a neutral position, supporting the solution proposed by the UN (Segovia 2022), so Algeria will be inclined to increase its supplies and consider Italy a preferential partner.

How this will affect Algeria’s foreign policy remains to be seen. As a country highly dependent on oil and gas sales, it is possible that despite their current anger, they may decide to put the opportunity to sell more gas and be a preferential partner for Europe first. However, by including in this equation the fact that Morocco may feel strong due to the support received by countries as strong as the US, Israel, France and Spain, Algeria may see this as a threat to its security, so a new acceleration in the arms race between the two countries or more dangerous conflict situations could not be ruled out.

On the other hand, the European authorities seem to have blessed the agreement, as they consider a good relationship with Morocco indispensable for the security of Europe’s southern flank (Reuters 2022). However, they have put the interests of the Sahrawi population to one side, putting European security and economic interests ahead of the rights of the Sahrawi people, in contravention of UN resolutions and proposals (El Mundo 2022).

In short, although it is a move made by Spain alone, it represents a major change in the region, involving countries on the other side of the Mediterranean such as Israel and world powers such as the US. It remains to be seen how the situation evolves, although from the Spanish point of view, which is the one making the decision, it is still a long way from being considered a complete success.



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Written by Óscar Méndez