Madrid, March 14, 2022. That was the title of the letter sent to you just a year ago by the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, to the King of Morocco, Mohamed VI. The text and the news itself were only released four days later, on March 18, through a statement from the Moroccan Royal House. The entirety of the letter and its content were only known days later through a publication by The country. On these dates, therefore, the first anniversary of the historic turn taken by the leader of the Executive in relation to the Western Sahara. What has changed since then? What can happen from now on?
“Today I saw the famous letter published in a media,” said the chancellor on March 23 last year José Manuel Albares. It was never released by the government. A few hours before his first appearance in Congress on the subject, the aforementioned media revealed the content of the letter. The criticisms of the entire parliamentary arch, from Unidas Podemos to the PP, were unanimous both to the content of the theme and the change in foreign policy and to the ways that all public and political opinion had to become aware of it.
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The key paragraph of the letter is the following: “I recognize the importance of the question of Western Sahara for Morocco and the serious and credible efforts, within the framework of the United Nations, to find a mutually acceptable solution. In this sense, Spain considers that the Moroccan autonomy proposal presented in 2007 as the most serious, credible and realistic basis for the resolution of this dispute,” said Sánchez.
In the background was a serious crisis, practically without precedent, between Spain and Morocco. The position of the Spanish State, until a year ago of consensus between all the governments, on the conflict in the Sahara caused the neighboring country to increase its migratory pressure. Especially with the entry into Ceuta of thousands of people during the last month of May. The Moroccan ambassador in our country also left after receiving a humanitarian reception from the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Gali.
Dialogue between the two countries was null. The Government, after months of shadow diplomatic work, decided to make a move. Both Albares and the socialist leaders struggled in those days to defend their positions in public and in private. In their messages they highlighted several keys, namely with regard to the Saharawi question: everything would be resolved within the UN, the international context is what it is (with US and other European support for Moroccan positions) and Spain’s “movement” as a way to unblock a frozen conflict.
The “new stage” with Morocco and what has changed
Relations with Morocco have relaxed for the time being. Sánchez traveled in April to meet Mohamed VI in person. It was agreed to reopen the borders in Ceuta and Melilla and a joint declaration was signed. The ambassador returned to her duties and last February an expected High Level Meeting with Morocco (RAN) took place. The tactical pact, according to Sánchez himself, is “not to offend the other” in matters that affect the territorial sovereignty of both countries. The opening of commercial customs in the two autonomous cities, one of the great expectations, remains pending.
“Reconciliation with Morocco was achieved, but at a very high cost”, points out Alfonso Cassani, analyst at Fundación Alternativas
“It was a bittersweet change. What was achieved was a diplomatic reconciliation with Morocco, which was one of the main objectives. But at a very high cost.” This is how he sums up the situation a year ahead Alfonso Cassani, an analyst at the Alternatives Foundation, in conversation with Public. Cassani considers that the results of the RAN were “up to a certain point disappointing in that there were not as many advances as expected”. In addition, he also recalls the “symbolic misunderstanding” that meant that Mohamed VI did not receive Sánchez.
The analyst emphasizes that it is necessary to understand the international dynamics, with a trend of change in favor of Morocco in the Saharawi conflict and “strengthen its foreign policy”. “It has been getting better and better results in migratory and economic agreements”, adds Cassani. Regarding the Saharawi conflict itself, he states that “it does not seem that great steps are being taken towards the resolution of the conflict nor does it seem very feasible to recover the framework of a referendum”.
To the Professor of Political Science at the University of Granada, Raquel OjedaAt the international level, “the positions seem to remain equally polarized, at least with regard to the official discourse”. That is, with an open armed conflict for the Polisario Front that Morocco continues to ignore. Meanwhile, international organizations are preoccupied with other conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine or financial issues.
Ojeda also focuses on Moroccan domestic politics. For this, it is necessary to remember that the former president of the United States, donald trump, decided to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara shortly before leaving office. In return, the Alawite kingdom would resume relations with Israel. “It seems that some PJD (moderate Islamist) opposition to morocco with israel. Although this does not mean that there will be consequences for the conflict in Western Sahara”, points out the university professor in this regard.
Isaías Barreñada, professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Political Sciences and Sociology of the Complutense University of Madrid, considers that the only difference that the letter made is that the Government dared to write “one more word” since in practice Spain “is highly positioned with Morocco forever. The professor’s view is that with the approval of Sánchez’s autonomy, “Spain is excluded” from the resolution of the conflict.
For Barreñada, the so-called “active neutrality” around the Saharawi question goes hand in hand with a “cushion of interests”. That is, to generate relations of interdependence with the two countries involved. “What happens is that this old speech is not as effective as expected. Active neutrality means that we want to contribute to the solution of the conflict, but we are not going to get wet. That’s why we take refuge behind the UN. We support its efforts, which is like say nothing, because the UN has a series of limits, which is what the States want to do”, says the professor.
Algeria and the Polisario Front, broken relations
One of the most direct and tangible consequences of the Sánchez decision is Algeria’s reaction. Relations with the other neighboring country were severed shortly after the letter from the President of the Government. There are no known advances in this regard and there is also a substantive issue, which has to do with gas power supply. “Algeria has made it clear that its orientation with energy relations now favors Italy. Algeria has more and more power in this game of energy relations as a result of the war. This strengthens its position”, says Cassani in this regard.
“It took everyone by surprise, including the diplomatic corps and the PSOE”, says professor Raquel Ojeda
“There is a problem with Algeria, the difficult balance in the Algerian-Moroccan conflict, like a zero-sum game in which when you support one you stop supporting the other. In this case we are supporting Morocco. It does not seem that the conflict will be resolved soon”, adds the Fundación Alternativas analyst. Both Barreñada and Ojeda point out that the consequences with Algeria were not well calibrated by Albares. In fact, in his first public appearance after the March 18 news, the Chancellor assured that the Algerians were aware of the change in position. Something turned out to be wrong.
“What is clear is that it took everyone by surprise, including the diplomatic corps itself and the PSOE. A strategy of this type that implies a change in discourse has consequences. Relations with Algeria were one of those consequences, but it seems that the interests from Spain to Morocco continue to prevail and It doesn’t look like there will be a change.“, Ojeda reflects on this.
With whom there seems to be no progress is with the Polisario Front, the organization that acts as the legitimate representative of the Saharawi people before the UN. Its general secretary has been very tough on Spain’s position, which he describes as treason. The Government’s position was very present during the XVI Polisario Congress, as is reflected in this environment. PSOE distanced itself from the event despite having been invited and having attended on other occasions.
The UN, the EU and the immediate future
Regarding Foreign Affairs, they point out that Spain’s position is to support the UN special envoy, Stefan from Mistura. Albares met him several times. However, there was no tangible progress either. In fact, the special envoy has not yet been able to visit the territory of Western Sahara itself by decision of Morocco, which occupies the area. Yes, he visited Algeria and the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf (Algeria).
In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights, Volker Türk, recently recalled that the office he has headed since 2022 has not carried out missions to Western Sahara for eight years and he considered it very important to be able to do so again. Numerous international organizations, including Amnesty International, have denounced attacks on Saharawi activists in recent months, with Sultana Jaya as a more symbolic affair.
“The special envoy came to say that they are not making his job easier. Morocco does not allow travel to the territory and Algeria does not allow its plane to be Spanish. Any proposal bearing the stamp of Spain will be rejected by Algeria and the Saharawis“, warns Barreñada. The professor points out that the protagonism now belongs to the parties involved in the conflict, with a “very unequal balance of forces”.
“Any proposal that has the stamp of Spain will be rejected by Algeria and the Sahrawis”, warns Isaías Barreñada
Regarding relations with Morocco, Barreñada points out that normality is not guaranteed. In this sense, he alerts to the possibility that when there is some new tension, which may be due to the negotiation of territorial waters or airspace, “Morocco will go back to doing things because it is the practice they had, normalize and try to stretch the rope more.” “In the medium term we may find ourselves with a new crisis situation but with a different reality, that Spain has excluded itself from the resolution of the Saharawi conflict”, he adds.
“In Spain, it seems that there are certain critical voices among PSOE militants and, of course, from Unidas Podemos, that is, from the governing parties themselves, but there seem to be few incentives to change Spain’s foreign policy towards Morocco at this moment”, points out Ojeda.
The teacher also looks at the EU, where in parallel the morocco gate albeit with little or no consequences. The European institution, according to some specialists and as recalled by Ojea, could carry out a “conditionality” strategy, that is, try to put pressure on Morocco in this
“dossier” to carry out a true negotiation with the Polisario Front, through economic measures and the signing of international treaties.
For this year, the final decision of the European justice on the EU trade agreements with Morocco. The court has already agreed with the Polisario. Despite this, as Ojeda recalls, “the behavior of the Council, the Commission and the Member States does not leave many doubts about the continuity of this conflict, with clear support from the Moroccan side of the balance”.