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Spain and the issue of Western Sahara 

May 26, 2021 at 4:15 pm

The Spanish army and the Red Cross work on the Ceuta border after migrants crossed the Spanish border on 19 May 2021 [Diego Radames/Anadolu Agency]

Relations between Morocco and Spain over the issue of Western Sahara are tense to the point of technical estrangement. A political rift may follow which could last for months.

This prompts questions about the prevailing political positions among the politicians and intellectuals, and the deep state in Spain, towards Western Sahara, an issue that has once again become a determining factor in the relationship between Rabat and Madrid. By extension, this also affects Morocco’s relationship with the European Union.

The 1992 treaty between Spain and Morocco on the movement of people did not provide a framework for the issue, nor did it establish mechanisms to make any progress in such relations. Statements of praise issued by Madrid or Rabat remain baseless, prompting ridicule at the first real hiccup in the relationship, which we are seeing now.

Western Sahara triggered the current crisis last December, and it also affects related matters such as immigration and terrorism. Emphasis is placed on Spain’s reception of Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, which is fighting Morocco over sovereignty of Western Sahara. This is one of the factors contributing to the tension, but the deep state in Madrid and Rabat have another view of this dispute.

Official statements and comments by media close to the authorities in Rabat have raised the Ghali visit as a concern. The deeper view also asked whether or not Spain is a “reliable” neighbour. Is it interested in Morocco’s stability, and does it contribute to this stability? Or is Rabat simply a security guard for the Spanish border against terrorism and immigration?

READ: Spain mobilises Europe envoys to counter Morocco’s diplomatic attack

In the wake of the then US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara on 10 December, Rabat was surprised at how quick Madrid was to oppose such recognition. Spain even coordinated with European countries, including Germany, to prevent the EU from following the US move.

This left France unable to take any initiative, although it had always worked to support the autonomy proposal. Morocco believes that the end of the Western Sahara conflict, through autonomy, is the end of the problems not only within its own borders but also across North Africa. Morocco’s vision is reflected in the view that Spain is a country that obstructs development in its southern neighbour, due to its role in the perpetuation of this conflict. This discourse has developed culturally, politically and historically in Moroccan circles, which will make improved relations with Madrid harder to come by, and more volatile.

Spain is also asking questions beyond the Ghali visit. Does Morocco want a solution to the Western Sahara conflict without involving Spain in the search? Does Morocco wish to take advantage of the current situation in order to demand the restoration of [the Spanish enclaves of] Ceuta and Melilla? These are raised in ministerial statements, by Defence Minister Margarita Robles, for example, or former ministers and even former army officers transmitting the government’s intentions to the public. “Morocco sending its immigrants to Ceuta is not in protest against Ghali’s reception,” said former Defence Minister Federico Trillo recently, “but as a prelude to the restoration of Ceuta and Melilla [to Morocco].”

There are three perceptions prevailing in Spain about the future of Western Sahara and the position of the Spanish establishment, represented in all branches of the military, diplomatic corps, political parties, intelligence agencies and the business community. They are framed within intellectual and political propositions that date back centuries, and the only thing that changes are the issues; today it’s Western Sahara, tomorrow it’ll be Ceuta and Melilla, and in the past, it was the entire north of Morocco, and so on.

The first perception is an extremist approach calling for Morocco to be excluded from Western Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla. It is a historical approach that stems from the idea that Morocco is Spain’s historical enemy and so must be weakened. Its intellectual roots lie in the history of Spanish political thought, through Queen Isabella and developed by the founder of modern Spanish national thought, especially regarding Morocco, Prime Minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo in the second half of the nineteenth century. Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (1996-2004) is a supporter of this trend.

READ: Moroccans demand boycott of Spanish products

Then there is a central approach that sees Morocco as a partner that must be helped to restore Western Sahara to its sovereignty, provided that it is silent on Ceuta and Melilla forever. This approach believes in supporting self-rule making Western Sahara a state within the Kingdom of Morocco, which will help to democratise Morocco and boost relations. The intellectual roots of this approach date back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Its most prominent supporter was Angel Ganivet (1865-98), who defended the need to help Morocco, provided it is kept under control.

The other approach calls for helping Morocco to extend its sovereignty over Western Sahara and recognising it internationally on condition that the demand to restore Ceuta and Melilla be postponed until an agreement is also reached by Spain and Britain regarding Gibraltar. This approach sees Morocco as a major partner, and stems from the idea that an advanced Morocco, strong and connected closely with Europe will help to give priority to dialogue. Spain will always remain its main political and trade partner, as it was before the 1959 Battle of Tetouan. This position developed during the mid-1970s amid right wing trends in the military establishment, especially when Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, and Morocco pledged not to bring up the Ceuta and Melilla file for a decade, until Spain ended its democratic transition.

That is why, in 1987, King Hassan II launched a think-tank about the future of Ceuta and Melilla, after the success of that democratic transition. Madrid responded indirectly by establishing the Ibn Rushd Centre in the early 1990s, and the Spanish right wing completely undermined it. The intellectual roots of those belonging to this approach date back to the 19th century, with the likes of Joaquin Costa, and during the twentieth century with people such as Blas Infante, who called for unity between Morocco and Spain, especially Andalusia and northern Morocco. As for politicians who adopted this approach in the 21st century, we find former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and former Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. In 2006, Zapatero tried to find a regional solution to the Western Sahara conflict, on the sidelines of the UN, and therefore pressured Morocco to develop self-governance.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 24 May 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.