Spain’s tilt towards Morocco – European Council on Foreign Relations
On March 19, Spain took an important step in the direction of Morocco by supporting its plan to resolve the long-standing conflict in Western Sahara. Madrid clearly designed the move to curry favor with their southern neighbour, after a year in which their relationship was particularly strained. Celebrations in Rabat indicate that Moroccans appreciated the gesture. But, for Spain, this may prove to have only fleeting benefits. The move is strategically short-sighted, as it rewards Morocco’s pressure campaign against Spain – by exploiting its vulnerability to irregular migration – and incentivizes similar behavior in the future. In the process, Spain risks triggering a new crisis with Algeria that could undermine European efforts to confront Russia over its war in Ukraine.
The surprise decision was revealed when King Mohammed VI revealed part of the contents of a private letter from Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. the letter endorses Rabat’s position on Western Sahara, describing Morocco’s 2007 proposal for Sahrawi autonomy – which would integrate the territory into Morocco – as “the most serious, realistic and credible basis” for resolving the conflict. This follows a similar decision from Berlin. In an effort to mend its own relations with Rabat, the German government describe Morocco’s plan as an “important contribution”. Spain is now the strongest European supporter of Morocco’s autonomy plan – even in comparison with France, a close ally of Morocco. So far, Paris has refrained from using superlatives when endorsing – approving the “serious and credible” nature of the plan.
Yet, as Europe struggles to defend the rules-based international order against Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, it is particularly dangerous for Spain to support Moroccan claims to Western Sahara. – which it illegally annexed in 1976. In doing so, Madrid opened up to accusing itself of double standards.
Basically, Madrid’s calculations have little to do with Western Sahara. Spain’s decision is just the latest bet in a long-running effort to normalize relations with Morocco. The relationship is disrupted from Spain permit the leader of the Polisario Front – the Sahrawi independence movement – to seek covid-19 treatment in a Spanish hospital in April 2021. Morocco retaliated by relaxing its border controls, inciting around 10,000 migrants to enter Ceuta, a contested Spanish city in North Africa. This decision, which the Spanish Defense Minister describe as “blackmail”, corresponds to a model in which Morocco uses migration to try to force Europe to accept its position on Western Sahara.
The Spanish government has already made several efforts to appease Rabat. In July 2021, it fired his foreign minister at the time, Arancha Gonzalez Laya. A few months later, the Spanish government Free supply natural gas to Morocco. (This follows Algeria’s decision to terminate its contract with Morocco on the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline – a decision prompted by rising tensions between the two rivals.) And, in January 2022, the king of ‘Spain vaunted his country’s friendship with Morocco. However, none of this had the desired effect on the Moroccan government, which made clear that he would accept nothing less than a Spanish endorsement of his position on Western Sahara.
In trying to solve a crisis on its southern border, Madrid may have created another. And that may have complicated European efforts to confront Russia. This sudden decision caused real shock and anger in Algeria, which has long been a strong supporter of the Polisario Front. Algeria now has took of his ambassador to Spain in protest, but there is no guarantee that the political fallout will end there.
Given the recent surge in world energy prices, Algeria’s gas exports provide it with an important source of leverage over Europe. Russia, one of Algeria’s closest partners, could happily push the country in this direction to limit Europe’s ability to stop its Russian energy imports. And Europe depends on Algeria in other important areas, including counterterrorism cooperation in the Sahel. Madrid’s decision could seriously disrupt this cooperation.
The Moroccan king’s decision to reveal Spain’s position on Western Sahara appears to have left Madrid officials struggling to catch up. They apparently expected the letter to remain confidential, at least until Sanchez traveled to Rabat. This has led to considerable confusion as to what exactly the Spanish government has done, creating a strong impression that Spain has simply bowed to Moroccan pressure on Western Sahara to mend their bilateral relations.
In an attempt to limit the damage, Spain recently sent its new foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, to a meeting with the UN envoy for the Western Sahara peace process, Staffan De Mistura – during from which they reaffirmed Spanish support for a “mutually agreed solution within the framework of the United Nations”. Spain has denied that its decision represents a fundamental change in policy, even as it describe this as a “historic turning point” which creates a new basis for bilateral relations with Morocco. Such contradictions only underline Madrid’s strategic confusion.
It is still unclear if Morocco promised anything to Spain in exchange for their gesture of support. In addition to a general commitment to put bilateral relations on a positive new footing, Madrid may have obtained some assurances on Moroccan cooperation in migration control and normalization of relations with Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish cities over which Morocco claims sovereignty. These issues have long been on Spain’s wish list. But any concessions from Morocco in these areas appear to be limited and non-binding. Equally important, the bilateral relationship has swung in Rabat’s favor and undermined Spain’s future negotiating positions.
This episode is another reminder of how Europe’s concerns about migration and terrorism make it vulnerable to coercion by foreign states. If, as is likely, the European Court of Justice continues to rule against the inclusion of Western Sahara in the European Union’s trade relations with Morocco – another of Rabat’s main demands – Spain will again suffer Moroccan pressure. Ultimately, Rabat is unlikely to change tack until it gets full Spanish (and European) acceptance of its claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Spain’s decision is particularly badly timed given that Morocco did not participate in the recent United Nations General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine. Indeed, there are indications that Rabat has since reinforced his ties with Moscow. Morocco’s apparent hedge between Europe and Russia is driven by its own interests – including the need to protect wheat exports as domestic food prices rise. In this regard, it behaves no differently from other states in the Middle East, such as Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
However, Europe is increasingly making concessions to its partners in the Middle East and North Africa without exercising its considerable economic and financial leverage over them to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Morocco’s refusal to participate in the UN vote has generated a lot of frustration among European countries. However, their response so far has been to increase Morocco’s incentives for cooperation. Spain is not the only one in this case. On March 10, shortly after the vote, the European Commission promised to mobilize an additional €8.4 billion of investment in Morocco and announced a new partnership with the country called Link Up Africa. As with Spain’s concessions, none of this produced a favorable change in Moroccan politics.
Of course, Spain and the EU must maintain close ties with Morocco – as Albares Explain in the Spanish parliament today. But this should not be exclusively on Morocco’s terms. By refusing to use their influence on Morocco, Spain and the EU are reducing their own bargaining power and reinforcing the perception among many leaders in the Middle East and North Africa that the Europeans are insignificant players. In the region. Europe has economic, financial and political value for its regional partners that Russia and even China cannot easily replicate. At a time when the EU can only protect its regional interests by intensifying competition with other global powers, it cannot afford endless concessions for so little in return.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of its individual authors only.