España y Marruecos: La permisividad española ante el vecino del sur

Spain and Morocco: Spain's permissiveness with its southern neighbor


19 | 04 | 2023


"The government should reconsider the role it wishes to play, and weigh whether a lax attitude, which in the short term deadline may calm the waters, is in the country's long-term interests deadline"

In the picture

meeting The President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sanchez, upon his arrival in Rabat to participate in the XII High Level meeting between Spain and Morocco in February 2023 [Fernando Calvo] [Fernando Calvo].

In recent decades, Morocco has been strengthening its position on the international scene, consolidating its Economics and its influence in the Maghreb region. Meanwhile, Spain has maintained a more discreet position in its relationship with its southern neighbor, trying not to offend it and seeking stability in its foreign policy.

However, this strategy of caution seems to be resulting in what some describe as Spain's repeated submission to Morocco's will. In recent months, the relationship between the two countries has become increasingly tense over issues such as immigration from Moroccan territory, the sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla, and Western Sahara.

Migration crisis in Ceuta and spying on the Government

Morocco clearly showed its capacity to put pressure on Spain in May 2021, by facilitating access to the border with Ceuta to successive waves of migrants; nearly 8,000 managed to enter the Spanish city in just a few days. After Moroccan intelligence learned that Spain had taken in the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali (who has a Spanish passport), to provide him with attendance health care, the African country responded with a flood of migrants to the Spanish autonomous city. Several reports from the National Intelligence Center (CNI) brought to light that there was a spread of rumors among the sub-Saharan migrant community that the Moroccan Security Forces and Corps were going to lift the controls on the northern coast. According to these CNI reports, the Moroccan police reportedly received instructions from Rabat to reduce surveillance on the coastal strip, and the local authorities also reportedly facilitated the transport of sub-Saharan migrants to the vicinity of Ceuta. As result, several boats attempted to leave the coasts of Tangier. 

Curiously, that same month of May 2021, the cell phones of the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, and three of his ministers - Interior, Defense and Agriculture - were infected with the Israeli program 'Pegasus'. Recently, the European Parliament has concluded that it is "plausible" that Morocco is behind the spying, while the Spanish government has refrained from pointing to Morocco or any other country as manager.

The CNI then highlighted the role of King Mohamed VI in what happened, and ventured that Morocco's intention was simply to put pressure on the Spanish Government to get it to take its side on the Western Sahara issue. In March 2022, Morocco succeeded in this goal, as will be seen below.

Rabat could adopt new sovereignty measures in the Sahara, which could provoke incidents and reopen the discussion on the overlapping zones between Saharawi and Spanish waters in the Canary Islands. Likewise, Moroccan diplomacy still maintains the narrative of its own sovereignty over the two autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, the islands and rocks in the Mediterranean and sometimes even the Canary Islands, on the basis that they are vestiges of Spanish colonialism.

The conflict over Western Sahara

The Western Sahara issue is a fundamental piece in Morocco's power game, as well as the main point of dispute with Spain, at least until March 2022. The Covid-19 pandemic was devastatingly felt in the refugee camps of Tindouf, where the food ration per person dropped from 17 to 5 kilos (with severe cases of malnutrition). The consequent weakening of the Polisario Front favored Morocco, in November 2020, to violate the agreement ceasefire C by the UN in 1991, provoking in turn the Polisario Front to declare war on Morocco a few days later.

The status worsened after the recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara by the United States in December of the same year, in contravention of the United Nations position, which considers Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory under the supervision of the UN Special Decolonization committee . Precisely in order to carry out a referendum of self-determination, the United Nations mission statement for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was created in 1991, although it has not achieved significant progress since then and accumulates the Withdrawal of two of the special envoys of the University Secretary to the territory of Western Sahara (one in 2004 and another in 2019).

Perhaps the most significant gesture in the recent history of the conflict has been the one made by the Prime Minister of Spain (still considered as an administering power by the UN) in March 2022. In a letter sent to the King of Morocco, Pedro Sanchez endorsed Rabat's autonomy proposal and abandoned Spain's historic position on the Western Sahara conflict, which consisted of supporting self-determination under the terms established by the United Nations. This occurred in parallel to the Spanish shipment of arms to Ukraine and to the signs of support and solidarity with the Ukrainian people shown by the Madrid government after the Russian invasion of its territory, in what can be interpreted as a contradictory position to that maintained in the case of Western Sahara, also a victim of an occupation -that of Morocco- since 1975, when it ceased to be a Spanish province.  

It also remains to be seen how the question of the control of the airspace of Western Sahara, which to date is the responsibility of the Air Traffic Control Center of the Canary Islands, will evolve. The senator of the Canary Coalition Fernando Clavijo set off all the alarms when he asked the Government about the seventh point of the Joint Declaration between Spain and Morocco signed in April 2022, which announced the beginning of talks on this airspace. The Government confirmed that the talks had already started, and assured that, in no way, there would be a concession to Morocco. It is questionable, however, that, the Spanish Government having shown an inclination towards the Moroccan sovereignty plan, there will not be a cession of the Sahara airspace to Morocco in the short or medium term deadline . Under this perspective, Morocco would have legitimate skill and control over the air (and maritime) space, given that Western Sahara would be considered as part of the Moroccan territory.

Conciliation with Morocco: meeting de Alto Nivel

Last February took place in Rabat the XII Spanish-Moroccan summit or meeting of High Level (RAN), in which the President of the Spanish Government only reaffirmed the new position of support to the Moroccan sovereignty plan on the Sahara.

At the RAN, Spain also announced its intention to double the financing earmarked for Morocco to 800 million euros. According to the Spanish Executive itself, this funding channel will have a significant impact on the Maghreb country's employment , generating more than 20,000 jobs work in the textile, agricultural and automotive sectors. In this regard, it should be noted that the annual injections of Spanish money into Morocco prior to this increase were aimed at the same goal of reducing unemployment in the African country, which, logically, should have led to a parallel decrease in the issue of Moroccan emigrants. However, the reality is that the rate of Moroccan emigrants leaving their country has only increased year after year, reaching 3.3 million in 2020. It is questionable to think, therefore, that doubling the budget will mean a significant enough improvement in subject migration, even taking into account that Spain is not going through a period of special economic boom, and that, in terms of unemployment, Spain is above Morocco, with 12.3% and 10.7% respectively.

The "goodwill" shown by Spain, and the emphasis placed by the Spanish government on the importance of the RAN was not matched by a similar attitude on the other side of the Strait. Thus, the King of Morocco declined attend to meeting, despite which, Sanchez included in the visit a wreath at the tombs of Mohammed V and Hassan II (grandfather and father of the current monarch). Considering that the Spanish leader made the exhumation of Franco one of the central axes of the first phase of his progressive legislature, the homage to the personality of Hassan II, who precisely promoted the invasion of the Spanish colony of Western Sahara and who ordered the bombing of the Rif region with napalm and white phosphorus, is paradigmatic.

Distancing with Algeria

The attitude of both countries points to the fact that Morocco enjoys a position of dominance over Spain which is strengthened by the permissiveness of the Madrid government sample . The support to the Moroccan plan on Western Sahara, beyond the relative improvement of the control of the borders of Ceuta and Melilla -which, moreover, remains to be seen-, cannot be said to have favored Spain. Spain could have played a role core topic in the energy sector of a Europe that was looking for alternatives to Russian gas, and yet it has fallen out with Algeria by supporting Morocco's plan.

core topic The dispute over Western Sahara has been a point of tension between Algeria and Morocco, with Algiers clearly positioned in favor of Saharawi self-determination, not only because of a moral issue or any interest it may have in Saharan lands, but because Morocco's pretensions go far beyond Western Sahara: the so-called 'Greater Morocco' also encompasses the Algerian regions of Tindouf and Béchar; and it is in nobody's interest to have a neighbor with imperialistic aspirations that could eventually put your sovereignty in check.

Recently, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune made it very clear that relations with Morocco had reached a "point of no return", blaming Morocco for this. In the interview, Tebboune also criticized Spain, which he accused of being biased towards Morocco and stated that it still has the responsibility to solve the Western Sahara problem due to its past as a colonial power. Relations between Algeria and Spain have only deteriorated as Spain has been making concessions to Morocco.

Algeria may constitute the great alternative to Russian gas from which Spain, as the gateway of entrance to Europe, could have benefited considerably. Before Spain announced its support for the Moroccan plan for the Sahara, Algiers had promised Madrid to increase the capacity of the Medgaz gas pipeline that connects Algeria directly with Spain, from 8 to 10 billion cubic meters per year. After the break in relations, this increase will not take place, with the aggravating circumstance that this pipeline will now be the only one that Algeria will keep open with Spain, since it unilaterally closed the Maghreb pipeline (which connects Algeria with Spain via Morocco), which has a greater capacity.

This missed opportunity for Spain has tipped the balance in favor of another Mediterranean country. Algeria is now seeking to strengthen its commercial ties with Italy with the construction of a new gas pipeline (known as GALSI) which aims to turn Italy into the energy hub for Europe that Spain seems to have missed the opportunity to be. It is worth noting that, at present, the United States has become the largest exporter of gas to Spain, in the form of liquefied gas, which is more expensive than that which enters by pipeline. In other words, Spain now has to depend on gas from the United States, which is more expensive, instead of obtaining supplies from Algeria, which is cheaper and faster. An economic detriment emanating from the enmity harvested with Algeria for the recognition of the Moroccan Sahara.

Rebalancing the diplomatic balance

However remote the possibility may seem, at this point, Spain could still take a position on the Western Sahara issue, and confront Morocco, in line with what the UN has been asking for more than a decade. While it is true that this would increase friction with Morocco, which would be reflected above all in migratory flows, it does not seem reasonable to continue to maintain a position that would damage Spain's relations with other trading partners which, in the current market, represent a great economic opportunity.

It is not only a gesture of solidarity and responsibility with the Saharawi people, but also to see the opportunity that can mean that a sovereign Sahara can agree with Spain the trade of its natural resources freely; and, above all, not to lose its national sovereignty in favor of foreign interests.

Especially in a situation in which the Western world has positioned itself against imperialism, it is reasonable to think that Europe would support the referendum requested by the United Nations for Western Sahara. The Spanish government should therefore reconsider the role it wishes to play, and weigh up whether a lax attitude, which in the short term deadline may calm the waters, is beneficial or not for the country's interests in the long term deadline.