On 19 March, Spain took a major step in Morocco’s direction by backing its plan for resolving the long-running conflict in Western Sahara. Madrid clearly designed this move to curry favour with its southern neighbour, after a year in which their relationship had been 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 incentivises similar behaviour in future. In the process, Spain risks sparking a new crisis with Algeria that may undermine European efforts to confront Russia over its war in Ukraine.
The surprise move came to light when King Mohammed VI revealed some 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 move by Berlin. In a bid to mend its own relations with Rabat, the German government described Morocco’s plan as an “important contribution”. Spain is now the strongest European supporter of Morocco’s autonomy plan – even in comparison to France, a close ally of Morocco. So far, Paris has refrained from using superlatives when endorsing the “serious and credible” nature of the plan.
Yet, as Europe works to defend the rules-based international order against Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, it is particularly dangerous for Spain to back Moroccan claims to Western Sahara – which it illegally annexed in 1976. In doing so, Madrid has opened itself to accusations of double standards.
Fundamentally, Madrid’s calculations have little to do with Western Sahara. Spain’s decision is just the latest gambit in a long-running effort to normalise its relationship with Morocco. The relationship has been unsettled since Spain allowed the leader of the Polisario Front – the Sahrawi national independence movement – to receive treatment for covid-19 in a Spanish hospital in April 2021. Morocco retaliated by loosening its border controls, prompting around 10,000 migrants to enter Ceuta, a contested Spanish town in north Africa. This decision, which Spain’s defence minister described as “blackmail”, fits a pattern in which Morocco uses migration to try to force Europe to accept its position on Western Sahara.
The Spanish government has made several previous efforts to placate Rabat. In July 2021, it sacked its then foreign minister, Arancha Gonzalez Laya. A few months later, the Spanish government offered to supply natural gas to Morocco. (This followed Algeria’s decision to end its contract with Morocco on the Maghreb-Europe Gas pipeline – a move prompted by a rise in tensions between the two rivals.) And, in January 2022, the Spanish king extolled his country’s friendship with Morocco. Yet none of this had the intended effect on the Moroccan government, which made clear that it would accept nothing less than a Spanish endorsement of its position on Western Sahara.
In trying to resolve one crisis on its southern border, Madrid may have created another. And it may have complicated European efforts to confront Russia. The sudden move caused real shock and anger in Algeria, which has long been a staunch supporter of the Polisario Front. Algeria has now withdrawn its ambassador to Spain in protest, but there is no guarantee that the political fallout will stop there.
Given the recent surge in global energy prices, Algeria’s gas exports provide it with an important source of leverage over Europe. Russia, one of Algeria’s closest partners, may happily nudge the country in this direction to constrain Europe’s ability to halt its imports of Russian energy. And Europe is reliant on Algeria in other important areas, including counter-terrorism cooperation in the Sahel. Madrid’s decision could seriously disrupt such cooperation.
The Moroccan king’s decision to reveal the Spanish position on Western Sahara appears to have left officials in Madrid struggling to catch up. They apparently expected the letter to be kept private, at least until Sanchez visited Rabat. This has led to considerable confusion as to what exactly the Spanish government has done, creating a strong impression that Spain simply bowed to Moroccan pressure on Western Sahara to repair their bilateral relationship.
To try to limit the damage, Spain recently dispatched its new foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, to a meeting with the UN envoy to the Western Sahara peace process, Staffan De Mistura – at which they reaffirmed Spanish support for a “mutually agreed solution in the framework of the United Nations”. Spain has denied its decision represents a fundamental policy shift, even as it describes this as a “historic turning point” that creates a new basis for bilateral relations with Morocco. Such contradictions only highlight Madrid’s strategic confusion.
It is still unclear whether Morocco has promised Spain anything in return for its gesture of support. Besides a general pledge to put bilateral relations on a new, positive footing, Madrid may have obtained some reassurances on Moroccan cooperation on migration control and the normalisation of relations with Ceuta and Melilla – two Spanish towns that Morocco claims sovereignty over. 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. Just as importantly, the bilateral relationship has tilted in Rabat’s favour and undermined Spain’s future negotiating positions.
This episode is another reminder of how Europe’s concerns about migration and terrorism leave 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 relationship with Morocco – another of Rabat’s key demands – Spain will come under Moroccan pressure once again. Ultimately, Rabat is unlikely to change its tactics until it has obtained full Spanish (and European) acceptance of its sovereignty claim to Western Sahara.
Spain’s move is especially poorly timed given that Morocco did not participate in the recent UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine. Indeed, there are indications that Rabat has since strengthened its ties with Moscow. Morocco’s apparent hedging between Europe and Russia is driven by its own interests – including the need to safeguard wheat exports as domestic food prices rise. In this regard, it is behaving no differently from other Middle Eastern states, such as Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
However, Europe increasingly makes concessions to its partners in the Middle East and North Africa without exerting its considerable economic and financial leverage over them to achieve its foreign policy goals. Morocco’s refusal to participate in the UN vote generated a great deal of frustration among European countries. However, so far, their response has been to increase Morocco’s incentives for cooperation. Spain is not alone in this. On 10 March, shortly after the vote, the European Commission promised to mobilise an additional €8.4 billion in investment in Morocco and announced a new partnership with the country entitled Link Up Africa. As with Spain’s concessions, none of this has produced a favourable shift in Moroccan policy.
Of course, Spain and the EU need to maintain close ties with Morocco – as Albares explained to the Spanish parliament today. But this should not be exclusively on Morocco’s terms. By declining to use their leverage over Morocco, Spain and the EU reduce their own bargaining power and reinforce the perception among many leaders in the Middle East and North Africa that Europeans are inconsequential actors in the region. Europe has an economic, financial, and political value to its regional partners that Russia and even China cannot easily replicate. At a time when the EU can only protect its regional interests through intensifying competition with other global powers, it cannot afford to make endless concessions for so little in return.
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