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Spain’s Policy Shift on Western Sahara

Ms Anandita Bhada is a Research Analyst at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 19, 2022

    Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, was to have a referendum when the Spaniards chose to leave in 1975. The people of Western Sahara were to choose between independence or integration with Morocco. Due to the complex interplay of factors, the referendum could not take place and the region was controlled by Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979, Mauritania signed a peace deal with the Polisario Front (an independence movement led by the Sahrawi natives which was founded in 1973) and gave up its control over Western Sahara. Currently, Morocco controls over 80 per cent of the territory and contends that its jurisdiction over the region even predates the Spanish rule. Spain has remained neutral on the Western Sahara conflict all these years and has pushed for a political resolution which is mutually acceptable to the parties involved.

    Spain announced a shift in its policy stance on Western Sahara on 18 March 2022 when the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez extended his support to the 2007 Moroccan plan of granting an autonomous status to Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. The Kingdom of Morocco welcomed this announcement by resuming diplomatic relations with Spain. In 2021, when Spain allowed Brahim Ghali (Polisario Front leader) to get medical treatment for COVID-19 on humanitarian grounds, it angered Morocco.

    Reports note that it retaliated by recalling its Ambassador to Spain and loosening border controls, which resulted in the crossover of thousands of migrants into Spanish territories bordering Morocco.1 After the Spanish announcement, Spain–Morocco bilateral relations have stabilised. King Mohammed VI met the Spanish leader and they agreed to ease the year-long tensed diplomatic relations.

    The decision to back Morocco is intriguing since Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front, is Spain's biggest natural gas supplier. Even as it is trying to reduce dependence on Russian gas, Spain has chosen to support the territorial claims of its strategic partner, Morocco, at the cost of its energy partner, Algeria.

    Western Sahara has rich deposits of phosphate, iron ore and potash. Its significance can be ascertained from the fact that phosphate is an important ingredient in fertiliser production and currently, there is a worldwide shortage of phosphate fertilisers. Also, its vast coastline and access to fertile fishing grounds and offshore oil in the Atlantic Ocean adds to the strategic importance of this contentious territory.2

    If Morocco’s sovereignty over this region is recognised by international actors and states, it would mean proximity to yet another Spanish autonomous territory, i.e., Canary Islands, and other important port cities like Ceuta and Melilla, bordering Morocco. During turbulent times, Morocco has often laid claims to Ceuta, Melilla, and parts of Canary Islands.

    Prime Minister Sanchez asserts that this policy shift would bring “a new phase of bilateral relations” in the strategic partnership with Morocco, which is Spain’s economic and anti-terrorism partner in the African continent. Additionally, it is also responsible for preventing Sub-Saharan and Moroccan migrants from entering Ceuta and Melilla. In the joint statement issued on 7 April 2022, both countries agreed to focus on airspace management, joint demarcation of borders and resuming cooperation in energy, migration, industry and economic fields.3

    Algeria’s Reaction

    After Italy, Spain imports the largest quantity of gas from Algeria. The Spanish declaration therefore came as a shock to the Algerians, supporters of the Polisario Front. Algerian Foreign Ministry stated that it was “very surprised by the surprising statements” of the Spanish leadership and recalled its Ambassador, posted in Madrid, back to Algiers for consultations.4

    Algeria’s state-owned energy firm, Sonatrach, is planning to stick to ‘fair moderate gas prices’ for all its customers, barring Spain. Going forward, Spain might see a recalculation of domestic gas prices, owing to the increased prices in the global energy market.5 Tensions in Spain–Algeria relations could benefit other European nations in their energy deals. For instance, Italy has signed a deal with Algeria, to procure 12 per cent of its gas demands, in addition to the current supplies, to ease its dependence on Russia.6

    Spain was already shifting its dependence from Algeria to Liquefied Natural Gas imported from other countries. Spain has a vast coastline and six LNG regasification terminals, out of the 20 across Europe.7 It is importing LNG in large quantities from US, Qatar, Nigeria and others.

    If the gas prices increase for the Spaniards, it will not be the first skirmish involving the supply of gas between the two countries. Out of the two gas pipelines from Algeria to Spain, Algeria had closed supplies in Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline, passing through Morocco, in November 2021, owing to heightened tensions over Western Sahara. This incident prompted Spain to realise that a heavy gas dependence of almost 50 per cent on Algeria is strategically non-viable.

    Algeria could also decide to increase the price of gas passing through the undersea Medgaz pipeline. Algeria, though, must work towards increasing the capacity of the Medgaz pipeline (the only functional pipeline from Algeria to Spain), if it wants to be a reliable energy partner for European nations.

    Domestic Reactions

    Spain’s ruling coalition primarily comprises the Socialists and the far left Unidas Podemos, supported by a few regional parties. The biggest opposition is the conservative Popular Party, which has charged that Prime Minister Pedro took the step on account of pressure tactics by Morocco. They charge that to mend relations with one country (Morocco), the government has damaged Spain’s relations with three parties—Algeria, the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi people. Alberto Feijoo, a prominent leader of the Popular Party, criticised the executive for not informing the parliament before taking the decision.

    Some elements within his coalition government do not see the need to break away from the country’s decades-old stance. Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Yolanda Diaz tweeted that she is fully supportive of a UNSC resolution which gives importance to “dialogue and respect for the democratic will of the Saharawi people”.8

    Spain is facing the worst inflation in over three decades, with rising food and fuel prices. In 2021, fuel prices rose by over 72 per cent, the highest increase in Europe. With the shift in policy over Western Sahara getting prominence, Spaniards are questioning the need to antagonise Algeria, as it could increase the fuel costs further. Analysts note that the impact of this decision will be felt in the 2023 national elections.

    The Socialist Party, enjoying maximum support from the electorate, represents the other side of the public opinion. Their supporters view this move by the Spanish government as a step towards enhancing Spain’s strategic relations. Morocco is a very important partner for Spain, from geographic and strategic perspectives. Those opposing the viewpoint of the Popular Party consider the recognition of Morocco’s 2007 plan to be in line with the UN’s policy on Western Sahara. They claim that Spain is trying to take a realistic view of the situation, which seems to be the only practical way to resolve it.

    EU’s Reaction

    The European Commission (EC) welcomed Spain’s policy shift and stated that it is a “serious, credible and realistic” solution to an issue that has been ongoing for decades now. The EC has supported the move as it improves the Euro-Moroccan partnership and enhances Spain’s bilateral ties with its strategic partner. The office of EU foreign policy Chief Joseph Borrell has also expressed support for the United Nations stance on this issue, which calls for a just, realistic, pragmatic, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to Western Sahara.

    The EU has not only welcomed the Spanish move but has been supportive of Germany’s tilt towards Morocco (on the same issue) as well. In fact, the first major power to recognise Morocco’s authority over Western Sahara was the United States. At the end of his tenure, President Donald Trump signed a deal with Morocco in December 2020 along with Israel, in return for Morocco mending ties with Israel. The three countries pledged to cooperate on matters of common interest and boost multilateral and bilateral ties.9 On Western Sahara, Morocco also enjoys the support of a few African and Arab nations.

    Going Forward

    The global rise in fuel prices has predominantly impacted Europe and Africa is turning out to be a promising supplier to the European gas market. While it cannot wholly replace Russian supplies, the geographical proximity of the continent has ensured that the strategic importance of Africa for Europe has increased manifold after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Spain is keen on normalising ties with Morocco and resuming the strategic bilateral partnership, since it cannot afford border tensions due to the migrant crisis. Externally, while the demarcation of land and sea borders will help resolve overlapping territorial claims between Morocco and Spanish islands and coastal cities, domestically, Prime Minister Sanchez will have to contend with voices opposed to his decision, especially so ahead of national elections next year.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.