The United States remains open to various options for the future of Western Sahara, as Morocco, which claims sovereignty over the disputed territory, seeks to gain wider international support from its European neighbors.
Morocco is seeking support for a proposal it made in 2007 that would offer limited autonomy through a decentralized government in Western Sahara, with fiscal and budgetary powers, but external relations, security and defense remain in the hands of Rabat.
The proposal was rejected by the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, which demands total independence from Morocco.
The administration of US President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in late 2020 in return for the kingdom’s official recognition of Israel. This position was confirmed by Mr. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, more specifically by US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, during a five-day visit to Morocco and Algeria in March this year.
But Washington has now qualified for this position.
“We continue to view the Moroccan autonomy plan as serious, credible and realistic and as a potential approach to meet the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara.”told a source at the US Embassy in Madrid to EURACTIV.
The official added that the United States is “fully committed diplomatically, in support of the UN and with our international partners, to strengthen a credible, UN-led political process leading to a lasting and dignified solution”.
At the same time, Rabat exerted intense pressure on neighboring European countries, with some success.
Last month, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez issued a letter in support of Morocco’s plans to grant limited autonomy to the disputed area of Western Sahara.
It was a “small part of a major agreement with Morocco” which includes an agreement on the migration and management of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Isaías Barrenada Bajo, professor of international relations at Complutense University in Madrid, told EURACTIV.
Spain’s move comes after relations with Morocco hit a new low in May 2021, when Spain gave Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali access to hospital treatment, initially denying the facts in Morocco.
Morocco responded with reprisals by opening its borders to the island of Ceuta, where about 10,000 migrants arrived in a matter of days.
According to Mr Bajo, Spain must control its border and trust a neighbor who “used migrants as a weapon”.
“The second question is an old question between Spain and Morocco, linked to the two small Spanish territorial enclaves of northern Morocco, which are Ceuta and Melilla.”, he added. Both territories are geographically sensitive and “an important source of economic activity in the region”.
Mr. Bajo believes that these two points partly explain Mr. Sanchez’s decision. He pointed out, however, that the content of the March 18 letter was not “not brand new”.
“I do not think it is exactly a change of attitude, but rather an official statement that Spain supports the Moroccan initiative. Since 2007, the Spanish government has [soutenait] quietly the proposal. But now it has been made explicit. ”
“For Morocco, of course, this is a very important issue. But for Spain, the two previous questions are more important than[le conflit du Sahara Occidental]”.
Morocco is also important for Spain “in terms of economic cooperation and counter-terrorismAldo Liga, a researcher at the MENA Center at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told EURACTIV. The Moroccan authorities, he added, are proud of their anti-terrorism policy, which Rabat uses as “additional leverage in relation to the EU”.
A letter with “amazing mistakes”
To explain the Spanish position on Western Sahara, Mr Bajo said that there is “two sources of information” . “The first is [communiqué] opinion of the Royal Cabinet of Morocco, which for the first time spoke of a return to normality “with Spain.
‘The second source, the Spanish letter, is very strange. Because there are many mistakes there. This is not an official letter “.
Mr. Bajo refers to content and form rather than spelling mistakes.
“They call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the Ministry of European Affairs”he said, adding that there is no such ministry in Spain.
Following this letter, Mr Sanchez traveled to Morocco, and the Kingdom reaffirmed its obligations to control its borders and not to claim Ceuta and Melilla.
For these reasons, Mr. Bajo, that’s what’s happening “is a violation of international law because it is not the conventional way to solve a problem of decolonization”.
Mr. Bajo describes the Moroccan proposal itself as “an ultimatum” rather than “the result of a negotiation”adds it ‘Spain politically supports a unilateral proposal and I think it has closed its mediation capacity. [Elle] went from being part of the solution to being part of the problem ”.
Spain’s position, explained
This is what European socialist legislator Juan Fernando López Aguilar told EURACTIV ‘Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s letter to the King of Morocco [indiquait] that the Moroccan offer is serious and credible. But that does not mean that Spain has recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over these countries. .
Mr. López Aguilar said that Mr. Sanchez’s position means that “the principle of a mutually agreed agreement between two parties”is still in place and that Spain has not ignored the demands for independence made by the Sahrawi representatives.
According to Mr Aguilar, Morocco’s plan could lead to one “sustainable and solid agreement and a peaceful solution to this situation” .
The MEP believes that after 50 years, a meaningful step was needed to resolve the dispute, arguing that the main content of Mr Sanchez’s letter was that “Restart bilateral communication with the Kingdom of Morocco”on good terms.
Meanwhile, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, former Spanish diplomat Josep Borrell, said on March 21 that Sanchez’s letter did not contradict the EU’s position on Western Sahara.
“The solution must come from an agreement between the parties within the framework of the UN resolution. This is the European position, and from what I read in the letter from Spain, it does not contradict it. “he said.
Reactions from Algeria and Polisario
The publication of mr. Sanchez’s letter has caused an increase in tensions in the region.
Algeria, which supports the separatist Polisario Front, recalled its ambassador from Madrid in protest 24 hours after the letter was published. The Polisario finally suspended its diplomatic contacts with Spain on 10 April.
“It is a unilateral decision that is not in accordance with international law and breaks with consensus in Spanish foreign policy for the last 46 years” told Abdulah Arabi, the head of the Polisario Front delegation in Madrid, to EURACTIV.
“It is very serious that a country like Spain, the de jure administrative power in Western Sahara, leans towards an aggressor and an attacker like Morocco and places Spain on the border of international legality, thus excluding itself from any opportunity to play a role that could help the UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara and, more importantly, condition his work by supporting Morocco against UN resolutions “,said Mr. Arabi.
He described the letter as “the result of permanent and constant pressure from Morocco, mainly through migratory flows”which intervenes “in a very turbulent time in the region”. Relations between Algeria and Morocco deteriorated further as“there is an open war in Western Sahara”.
Mr. Lopez Aguilar, for his part, believes this is an answer “hybrid pressure [qui] worked on Spain as an extension of the whole of Europe, not only from Morocco but also from Algeria and from Libya ”.
“Of course they play geopolitically and put a lot of pressure. Algeria happens to be the leading gas supplier to Spain and Italy. [Elle] therefore seized the opportunity to increase the pressure there [l’Algérie] be able to exercise ”.
The Spanish opposition
Miguel Urbán Crespo, an MEP from the Anticapitalistas party, told EURACTIV that there has been no real change in the Spanish government’s foreign policy. “What has happened now is that the permanent hypocrisy has finally come to an end: the Spanish government is now writing what it does and has always done in practice with Western Sahara.”
“Again, Mr Sanchez has prioritized border controls and the strengthening of Morocco’s autocratic regime over international law or the Sahrawi people”he added.
The Spanish move, Mr Crespo explained, could not have taken place “without first securing an alternative to Algerian gas”because the approach aimed at restoring good relations with Morocco, in turn, weakens ties between Spain and Algeria.