When Morocco bets everything on the Sahara but Spain maintains its position

A few days ago the journalist Argemino Barro told in ‘El Confidencial’ that, in 1777, a year and a half after the Declaration of Independence of the USA, the Sultan of Morocco, Mohamed III, was the first to recognize the former British colonies of America as an independent nation. From there arose a privileged relationship between the two countries that has been maintained over the centuries. In 1943, when the allies met in Casablanca in the midst of World War II, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised the then King of Morocco, Mohamed V, that he would support him to obtain independence from France, which happened in 1956. Also an American president, Donald Trump, recently supported Morocco in its claim on the sovereignty of Western Sahara, a few days after leaving office. And the current president, Joe Biden, has not reversed the decision for now, despite the fact that the UN recognizes that Western Sahara is a territory to be decolonized whose people have the right to self-determination.

In politics, the strength of a country also depends on the strength of its allies. And, with the support of the US, Morocco has decided to force the situation so that the EU, its main trading partner and source of much of the aid it receives from abroad, follows the US steps in the Sahara. First it was with Germany, at the beginning of May, calling for consultations with its ambassador in Berlin about the “negative attitude” of that country towards Moroccan claims. And then with Spain, opening the border so that some 10,000 people could cross by sea in a couple of days the few meters that separate Morocco from Ceuta. What initially appeared to be a hostile response to the Spanish decision to allow the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Gali, to be treated in a Spanish hospital for the complications of the covid, was a form of pressure on Spain to change its position on it. conflict in its former colony, where so far it has conformed to UN resolutions. But Morocco has always considered that the Sahara is a historical part of its territory and that the Saharawi ‘national conscience’ is an invention resulting from Spanish colonialism.

The Moroccan border offensive has had mixed results. On the one hand, it has damaged the international reputation of the country, with the images of children encouraged to migrate by swimming across the border to reach Spanish shores. Even France, a traditional ally of Morocco, has marked distances, with a harsh editorial from the newspaper ‘Le Monde’ included. The European Commission has also remained firm in supporting Spain against the “blackmail” of Morocco, in the words of its vice-president Margaritis Schinas, recalling that Spanish borders are also European, a basic issue for the countries of the Union, very concerned about the irregular migration and the reaction it provokes among their public opinion. Even the US, which is going to carry out joint military exercises with Morocco, has stated that they will not be in Saharawi territory, as the Moroccan government initially announced.

The Ceuta crisis has also caused tensions in Spanish politics, showing the inability of the political forces to reach State agreements, which weakens the country’s position. While VOX criticizes the weakness of Spain vis-à-vis its African neighbor and calls for the militarization of the border, the PP focuses on the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, and on Spain’s decision to allow the entry of the Front’s leader Polisario, ignoring any reference to the underlying issue, which is the conflict in Western Sahara. But the situation also reflects the EU’s dependence on third countries, such as Turkey or Morocco, on border issues. Furthermore, as Europe’s ‘gendarme’, Morocco also plays a very important role in controlling Islamist terrorism, which has only increased in many Sahel countries.

In this situation of delicate balances, the gaze also turns to the internal situation of the Moroccan regime itself, which launches this nationalist challenge with problems entrenched at home. As Haizam Amirah Fernández, principal investigator at the Elcano Royal Institute specializing in the Middle East and North Africa, recalled a few days ago in ‘El Confidencial’, Morocco’s performance in Ceuta has coincided in time with the “internal tensions” caused by the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, shortly after it was decided to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for US support in the Sahara.

“Many have shown their anger that their country is normalizing relations with Israel without there having been any progress that improves the conditions of the Palestinian population. It is a subject very close to the emotions of the Moroccan population ”, he assured. Nor can we ignore the bad economic situation of the country, which last year went into recession for the first time since 1995, and which contrasts with the opulence of the Moroccan monarchy, owner of a good holding of companies, with interests in banking, insurance, telephony or tourism, as Francisco Peregil recently recounted in an article in El País. Social and territorial inequality have caused strong tensions in Morocco, such as the uprisings in the El Rif area in 2016, which led dozens of activists to jail. Reporters Without Borders has also denounced on numerous occasions the imprisonment of journalists for their opinions critical of the Mohamed VI regime.

In its relationship with Spain, Morocco has had several tense episodes in recent times, added to others more distant, such as the crisis of the Island of Perejil, in 2002. In 2020, the Moroccan Parliament approved two laws to unilaterally delimit its territorial waters , appropriating those of Western Sahara and overlapping with those of the Canary Islands. Although the Moroccan Government stated at the same time that the issue can only be resolved “by mutual agreement” with Spain, deep down there is the dispute over access to the underwater mineral resources in the Mount Tropic area, 499 kilometers from The iron. Also in 2020, Morocco also canceled a summit with the Spanish Government, coinciding with a year of very strong increase in migratory pressure on the Canary Islands, largely from the Moroccan coasts.

The situation is far from relaxed. Morocco maintains a very tough tone. And the Spanish Government, although somewhat more conciliatory, affirms that a discrepancy on an issue such as the Sahara cannot be resolved with an “attack” on the borders of Spain. Meanwhile, ‘El Español’ reported this week that the Moroccans were transferring espionage, intelligence, control and communication material to the north of the country. “They have radars that capture the signal up to 400 kilometers around,” the foreign intelligence explained to the newspaper, which claimed that Morocco views “dangerous” some “maneuvers” of the Spanish Army carried out near the coast of Al Hoceima on Tuesday. It doesn’t look like reconciliation is around the corner.

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