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Confident Morocco collides with EU on Western Saharan issue

Througout recent weeks the news was dominated by stories of refugees swarming the border between Morocco and Ceuta, a Spanish exclave. Morocco was accused of blackmailing Spain by letting refugees go through. The events unfolded shortly after the head of Western Saharan independence group Polisario, Brahim Ghali, was “discreetly” hospitalized in Spain. In recent months the dispute surrounding the Western Sahara has flared up again and the 1992 ceasefire was violated. Trump’s “deal” has only increased tensions.  

Spanish-Moroccan dispute escalates after refugee let through

Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles accused Morocco of “blackmailing” by creating the conditions for thousands of refugees to enter Ceuta, a Spanish exclave on the African continent. In her statement made on May 20, she said that the Moroccan authorities endangered lives “for a purpose I certainly don’t understand”. At least two died while trying to swim to Ceuta. Though using its own citizens in order to put pressure in such a manner is appalling, Robles no doubt perfectly understood why Morocco is putting pressure on Spain.

The Spanish authorities have sought to separate the Ceuta dispute from hosting Western Saharan independence movement leader Ghali, who was taken ill by COVID-19. He was allowed to enter a hospital in Logrono, Spain, and discreetly came into the country with a fake Algerian passport. The Moroccan authorities had warned Spain that repercussions would follow after their intelligence service found out. Border patrols were “relaxed” approximately a week after the dispute surrounding Ghali, so the connection is difficult to miss.

Conflict over Western Sahara at the heart of recent events

The reason why Morocco was angered by Spain’s hosting of Ghali has to do with the historical dispute surrounding the Western Saharan territories. The territories were a Spanish colony until 1975, when control was transferred to Morocco and Mauritania. As the countries moved in to annex their assigned territories they were resisted by Algerian-backed Polisario Front. After four years of fighting, Mauritania withdrew its claim. The fight continued between Polisario and Morocco and only ended after the United Nations (UN)-brokered 1991 ceasefire.

The following status quo saw the North-Western part of the Western Saharan territories being controlled by Morocco, with the South-Eastern part being controlled by Polisario. After about 30 years of stalemate, fighting erupted again in November of 2020. Moroccan forces moved in to clear a highway linking Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara, which was blocked by protesters. As a consequence, Polisario forces led by Ghali declared war on Morocco. Given this, it is not unsurprising that welcoming Ghali in Spain has triggered a conflict with Morocco.

Trump’s last “great deal” increased Moroccan confidence

The bold response of Morocco after the Ghali-hosting should be seen in the light of the United States (US) decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Saharan territories. In what proved one of President Donald Trump’s latest foreign policy “deals”, he persuaded Morocco to normalize ties with Israel. In return, the US joined the only few other Western countries that acknowledge Morocco’s claim. Despite Trump’s success, the return favour has put the newly installed Joe Biden administration in a precarious position.

Biden has pledged to continue what Trump called the “Abraham Accords”, between Israel and Arab countries. However, he is likely to be more cautious in what he gives Arab countries in return. Quite understandably, the US-backing of Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara seems to have increased Morocco’s confidence. Historically, Morocco’s former colonial overlord France had been defending the country’s interests on the Western Sahara in the UN Security Council. With US support, its position seemed significantly strengthened.

Germany appears biggest obstacle to Western Sahara recognition

Now Morocco felt backed by the US and France, it directed itself towards what it believed to be its final obstacle towards EU recognition of its Western Saharan claim, namely Germany. In March of 2021, Morocco ordered all government institutions to abstain from contact with the German Embassy and associated cooperation agencies and political foundations. On May 6 it even recalled its ambassador to Berlin. As a reason, Morocco gave Germany’s “destructive attitude” towards Morocco’s position on the Western Sahara issue.

Another reason given, was Morocco’s lack of invitation to a 2020 Berlin Conference on Libya, of which a follow-up conference was to be held this summer. However, Germany’s unwillingness to acknowledge Morocco’s claim on the Western Sahara like the US, is considered the most important cause. The German Foreign Ministry responded that they did not understand the accusations and would ask for an explanation. As relations have remained strained since, it is unlikely to assume Germany will change its position on the Western Sahara.

Bad timing to pick a fight with the EU on migration

In addition to this, France also appears to be “turning” on the Western Saharan issue and has declared its support for Spain in the recent Ceuta refugee dispute. It has not spoken out against Morocco’s claim specifically, but seems unwilling to once again cover for its former colony. Using its own population to put pressure on Spain, and the entire EU as such, has proved one step to far. The French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clement Beaune, declared that France “supports Spain” after the Ceuta crisis.

Morocco has chosen a bad time to pick a fight with the EU on such a sensitive topic. With elections nearing in Germany and France and with pressure from the far-right increasing on governing parties, the governments cannot afford to see another immigration crisis erupt. Although Morocco more often has used relaxations of border controls as leverage over Spain, it has this time triggered the entire EU. Beaune made clear that the migration was an “European issue” and emphasized that Ceuta was an EU-border too.

Chain of events triggered by Ghali hospitalization

Meanwhile, Ghali was summoned to Spain’s High Court. Two investigations were running against him. The first relates to allegations of torture in a refugee camp made in 2020 by Sahrawi activist Fadel Breika. The second concerns allegations of genocide, murder, terrorism, torture and disappearances, which were made in 2007 by the Sahrawi Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ASADEDH). In the end Spain’s High Court turned down the request to detain Ghali. The delivered documents did provide enough evidence.

Moroccan authorities have yet to respond to the recent events, but are not expected to approve of the Spanish High Court’s decision not to detain Ghali. Spanish government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero, declared that she expected relations between Spain and Morocco to return to normal. It does not seem like her optimism is justified though. The day before the decision Morocco had already declared that its dispute with Spain was no longer merely about Ghali’s hospitalization, but rather about the larger Western Saharan issue.

Considering this, the diplomatic row between Spain and Morocco appears far from over. Ghali returned to Algeria on June 2, as his health had improved. Morocco already declared that this made little difference and that it remained concerned over the Spanish stance on the Western Saharan issue. Spain’s “humanitarian gesture” to host Ghali seems to have triggered a chain of events. Morocco will continue to put pressure on the EU, feeling backed by the US. Hence, a follow-up chapter of this diplomatic charade is expected.

Sources: Aljazeera1, Aljazeera2, ArabWeekly, Dw, Ecfr1, Ecfr2, Euronews, Memo1, Memo2, Mwn1, Mwn2, Pri, Reuters1, Reuters2, Reuters3, Reuters4, Reuters5, Reuters6, Reuters7, Reuters8

Image: Wikimedia (Ceuta border fence, 2012)