Spain’s PM eyes ‘more solid’ Morocco ties after Western Sahara U-turn

Under attack over Spain's decision to change its stance on Western Sahara, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday defended the move as crucial to securing a "more solid relationship" with Morocco.

Spain's PM eyes 'more solid' Morocco ties after Western Sahara U-turn
Morocco's former Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani (R) receives his Spanish counterpart Pedro Sanchez (2nd-R) in the Moroccan capital Rabat during an official visit in 2018. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

For 10 months, Spain was in “an absolutely unsustainable situation” with Morocco, a strategic ally with whom “ties were cut from a political, diplomatic and economic point of view”, he said on a visit to Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves in North Africa.

“This was a crisis that could no longer be sustained over time, that we had to solve,” he said.

It was the first time Sánchez has spoken about last Friday’s bombshell announcement that Spain had agreed to publicly recognise Rabat’s autonomy plan for disputed Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975.

The decision drew a line under Madrid’s decades-long stance of neutrality, giving in to years of pressure from Rabat in order to end a major diplomatic crisis, which erupted just over a year ago.

Diplomatic ties nose-dived in April 2021 after Madrid allowed Western Sahara’s independence leader Brahim Ghali to be treated at a Spanish hospital for Covid-19.

Ghali’s Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara, a desert region bigger than Britain, that was a Spanish colony until 1975.

Then in mid-May, more than 10,000 migrants surged into Ceuta as Moroccan border forces looked the other way in what was widely seen as a punitive gesture by Rabat.

And despite multiple overtures by Madrid, ties remained frosty until now.

‘Essential to resume normalisation’

“We’re not only ending a crisis that had its clearest and most striking expression on 18 May 2021.. the most important thing is that we’re laying the foundations for a much more solid, stronger relationship with the Kingdom of Morocco,” Sánchez said.

“From now, it’s essential that we begin to develop this normalisation in economic and trade relations.. and in fundamental aspects such as migration control and security,” he said.

Migration is a key issue for Spain, with Morocco playing a fundamental role in controlling migratory flows — an issue which observers say has often been used by Rabat to put pressure on Madrid.

But Sánchez has come under fire for the secrecy surrounding the agreement, a major foreign policy shift that wasn’t ever discussed with his coalition partners, and for how it came to light via a statement from Morocco’s royal palace.

“We have been working diplomatically, silently, but I believe the result is good for Spain and Morocco,” he said, indicating the agreement had been under negotiation for 10 months.

Although Morocco quickly returned its own ambassador to Spain who had been recalled for consultations, the move infuriated Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front and is one of Spain’s main gas suppliers.

Western Sahara is designated by the UN as a “non-self-governing territory” whose people “have not yet attained a full measure of self-government”.

Morocco controls 80 percent of the territory, while the rest — an area bordering Mauritania that is almost totally landlocked — is run by the Polisario Front.

READ ALSO: Why Spain’s Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees

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What the PP’s landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain’s ruling Socialists

A resounding win by Spain's conservative Popular Party in a weekend regional election in Andalusia appears to have boosted its chances in national elections next year and weakened Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

What the PP's landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain's ruling Socialists

The Popular Party (PP) secured 58 seats in Sunday’s election in Spain’s most populous region — three more than the 55 needed for an absolute majority. That constitutes its best-ever result in the longstanding Socialist stronghold.

The Socialists won 30 seats, their worst-ever result in Andalusia. It governed there without interruption between 1982 and 2018, when it was ousted from power by a coalition between the PP and centre-right Ciudadanos.

This was the Socialists’ third consecutive regional election loss to the PP after votes in Madrid in May 2021 and Castilla y Leon in February.

Sanchez’s government has been struggling to deal with the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation worldwide, especially through increasing energy prices.

Socialist party officials argued the results of a regional election “can’t be extrapolated” nationally.

But in an editorial, centre-left daily El Pais said no one can deny the gulf in the election scores obtained between the two parties in two of Spain’s most populated regions — Andalusia and Madrid.

This was “more than just a stumble”, it argued.

“This may be a symptom of a change in the political cycle” at the national level, it added. The conservative daily ABC took a similar line.

‘Worn down’

Pablo Simon, political science professor at the Carlos III University, said this “new cycle” in which “the right is stronger” began when the PP won a landslide in a regional election in Madrid in May 2021.

It could culminate with the PP coming out on top in the next national election expected at the end of 2023, he added.

But Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza, took a more cautious line.

“The government is worn down after four difficult years due to the pandemic” and the war in Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation, she said.

She refused to “draw a parallel” between Andalusia and Spain, arguing “there is still a lot of time” before the next national election.

Sanchez come to power in June 2018 after former PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy was voted out of office in a no-confidence motion triggered by a long-running corruption scandal.

The PP then suffered its worst-ever results in the next general election in 2019, which the Socialists won.

Sunday’s election was the first since veteran politician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a moderate, took over as leader of the PP from Pablo Casado following a period of internal party turbulence.

Partido Popular (PP) candidate for the Andalusian regional election Juanma Moreno greets supporters during a meeting following the Andalusian regional elections, in Seville on June 19, 2022. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Packing his bags’

“People are fed up with Sanchez,” the PP’s popular regional leader of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, said Monday.

“If national elections had been held yesterday, the result would have been the same and today he would be packing his bags,” she added.

Up until now, the far-right Vox party had supported the PP in Andalusia but from outside government.

This time around however, it had said its support would be conditional on getting a share of the government of the southern region.

But the PP’s commanding victory in Andalusia means that is now moot: it no longer has to rely on far-right party Vox to govern.

At the national level, it could be a different story however, said Pablo Simon.

A PP government nationally that did not rely on Vox would be “impossible” due to the fragmentation of parliament, which has several regional and separatist parties.