Spain PM in Morocco to mend ties after Western Sahara shift
RABAT, Morocco — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez traveled to Rabat on Thursday to meet with Moroccan King Mohammed VI seeking to mark the end of diplomatic tensions centered on Morocco’s disputed region of Western Sahara.
Relations between the two countries separated by the Strait of Gibraltar were severely frayed last April. Morocco was angered by Spain allowing the leader of the pro-independence movement for Western Sahara to receive medical treatment for COVID-19 at a Spanish hospital on request by Morocco’s neighbor Algeria, an ally of pro-independence Sahrawis.
Morocco reacted by allowing the leader of the pro-independence movement for Western Sahara to receive medical treatment for COVID-19 at a Spanish hospital on request from Morocco’s neighbor Algeria, an ally of the Sahrawis. This led to thousands of undocumented migrants and young Moroccans crossing into Spain’s North Africa Enclave of Ceuta. The mood didn’t improve until last month when Sanchez made the unexpected decision to change Spain’s long-standing position regarding Western Sahara. This former Spanish colony is largely barren, but rich in phosphates, and has fertile fishing grounds in Atlantic Ocean. Morocco annexed it in 1976. In a letter to King Mohammed Sanchez supported Morocco’s plan for more autonomy for Western Sahara, as long as it remains under Moroccan control.
Morocco, in turn, sent back its ambassador to Spain 10 months after she was recalled.
After their meeting on Thursday, King Mohammed’s Royal Office issued a statement saying Sanchez “reaffirmed the position of Spain on the Sahara issue, considering the Moroccan autonomy initiative as the most serious, realistic and credible basis for resolving the dispute.”
The Royal Office added that the leaders “agreed in particular to implement concrete actions in the framework of a roadmap covering all areas of the partnership, integrating all issues of common interest.”
Facing immense political pressure back in Spain for the policy change regarding Western Sahara, Sanchez needed to show some real gains from the meeting. He was presented with a Moroccan commitment to “progressively” open the frontiers with Ceuta (and Melilla, its sister enclave) that had been closed since the outbreak of the pandemic. The date for which he will be reopening them is yet to be determined. Sanchez stated that the maritime traffic of ferries carrying hundreds of thousands of people from Europe to visit their family in Northern Africa for holidays will also be reopened.
The Spanish leader stated that both governments had agreed to hold another meeting with high-ranking officials before the end the year. Over the past decade,
Morocco’s strategic importance to Spain has increased. Rabat is critical in fighting radical jihadi groups and in holding back increasing numbers African migrants fleeing violence and poverty to reach Europe.
Sanchez, and Jose Albares, the Spanish Foreign Minister, have both insisted that Spain supports the resolution of the Western Sahara problem via a UN-backed referendum.
But Sanchez’s drive to appease Morocco has drawn sharp criticism in Madrid and Algiers.
His Socialist Party lost a Thursday parliamentary motion that was supported by all other parties, even the junior member of the government coalition. This condemns the tilt towards Rabat. Its political enemies accuse Sanchez of betraying the Sahrawi people and receiving nothing in return from Morocco.
Potentially even more problematic for Sanchez is the damage to relations with Algeria, which has recalled its ambassador to Spain in a sign of its continued support for the Western Sahara independence movement. Spain, despite having a low dependency on fossil fuel imports, receives natural gas from Algeria via a pipeline. Tankers transport liquified gas.
Laurence Thieux, professor of Islamic Studies at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said that she was surprised by the “scant consideration of Algeria in the decision” by Spain to tilt toward Morocco in the Western Sahara dispute. Thieux stated that she feels that Spain’s government is, like many European governments, managing crises that force them into making short-term decisions. “From the other shore (of the Mediterranean) there is a different sense of time because they are authoritarian governments that have perspectives that stretch beyond the next election.”
—— Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain
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