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Amid Migrant Crisis, Tensions Between Spain and Morocco Escalate

España y Marruecos, El American

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Tension between Spain and Morocco escalated again to alarming levels, after last week more than 10,000 irregular immigrants, among them 1,500 minors, entered the Spanish autonomous city of Ceuta through different points of the border perimeter. A record number that is unprecedented in the history of the European Union’s southern border.

According to the Spanish press, the Moroccan authorities are said to have relaxed controls on the flow of illegal immigrants seeking to reach Spain, which led to a massive influx of illegal immigrants into this country.

But for the Moroccan ambassador in Spain, Karima Benyaich, there are acts that have consequences, “and they have to be assumed”, in clear insinuation to the recent decision of Spain to give medical attention to the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, the number one enemy of the Moroccan regime, who is admitted in a Spanish hospital in Logroño. A gesture which has displeased King Mohamed VI.

From these declarations, the massive and uncontrolled exodus has begun to have serious political implications, interpreted by some analysts as a form of diplomatic punishment by the Moroccan regime to Spain.

Tension between Spain and Morocco once again escalated to alarming levels, after more than 10,000 irregular immigrants, including 1,500 minors, entered the Spanish autonomous city of Ceuta through different points of the border perimeter last week. (Image: EFE)

How did this 45-years-long disagreement come to this point and what should be put into perspective?

The historical irresponsibilities contracted by Spain at the origin of the process of decolonization of Western Sahara, the delay on the part of the UN in making its promises on a referendum of self-determination come true, Morocco’s territorial and nationalist ambitions and its biased reading of the 1975 Hague Tribunal ruling to refuse any resolution that includes an option for the territory’s independence, the ambiguous positions of the Polisario Front – a captive movement between sectors of the international left and the political interests of Mauritania and Algeria – have complicated the progress of a peace process.

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But these are not the only drawbacks.

The existence of a powerful pro-Moroccan lobby in the United States -Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in 2020 and Biden has no plans to reverse the position taken by the United States- coupled with a weak Spanish Executive committed to the communist allies in its cabinet, contribute to straining Spain’s relations with its Maghreb neighbors and to generating more instability and insecurity in the North African region.

The price of concessions

To what extent do the ambiguous positions of the Spanish government turn domestic politics into a hostage of the long-delayed Sahara issue, manipulated by Rabat?

Toledo, Dec 16, 01.- The Secretary General of the PSOE, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (left), is greeted by supporters on his arrival at the traditional Christmas lunch held by the Socialists of Toledo, before leaving this afternoon to Morocco, where he will be received by King Mohamed VI and the Prime Minister of that country. (Image: EFE)

The first concession made by Spain to Morocco in recent times dates back to 2001. Then, the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, in his capacity as head of the opposition, met with Mohamed VI, ignoring the warnings of the Popular Party government, in the midst of a complex diplomatic crisis with Rabat.

Zapatero was photographed with the Alaouite king in the Royal Palace, in front of a map in which Western Sahara appeared as part of the kingdom. The news appeared the next day on most of the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

In 2004, Zapatero arrived at the Moncloa Palace, and Morocco knew that from then on the Socialist president would shamelessly assume – as he also did years later with the dictatorial regime of Nicolas Maduro – the role of front man in Europe for Moroccan tyranny.

As the newspaper archives do not forgive, in September 2010, Zapatero once again played his role of accomplice. At the United Nations headquarters, the former president shook hands with Mohamed VI after the Moroccan security forces launched a repressive escalation in the Agdamyn Izik camp (on the outskirts of El Aaiun), which left a pitiful toll of several dead, missing and hundreds of detainees.

Although it is difficult to glimpse the exact intentions of King Mohamed VI in this violent dispute, the Ceuta crisis leaves many questions unanswered, especially due to the lack of foresight and passivity of the Sanchez government.

Perhaps what we have seen so far is the tip of the iceberg of a more serious future diplomatic confrontation between Morocco and Spain. According to all forecasts, the Moroccan monarch is moving his pieces to generate another escalation in which he will employ new diplomatic and tactical weapons, while the social and political landscape within Spain and Morocco, as well as the balance of power in the region, have changed.

We are probably now in a momentary cooling-off phase. The Alaouite monarch is studying the border points in order to choose another juncture favorable to his half-placist aims.

What will Mohamed VI gain from a new migratory crisis?

Zapatero was photographed with the Alaouite king in the Royal Palace, in front of a map in which Western Sahara appeared as part of the kingdom. The news appeared the next day on most of the front pages of newspapers around the world. (Image: EFE)

The dictator manages a perverse logic with several objectives. One of them is to condition Sanchez -via his government partners- not to support morally or materially the political dissidence, nor the Polisarios, and to demand from the European Union -this will be taken care of by the socialist MEPs- that other democratic nations are genuflecting when it comes to condemning the violations of fundamental rights during the repression of the opponents.

When will the next negotiation scenario take place? Surely, when Spain will have to face another migratory blackmail like the one the Canary Islands and Ceuta have had to endure recently.

But I do not think that next time Mohamed VI will be satisfied with little. Depending on the level of submission of the Executive of Sanchez and his proactivity to solve the root of the problem, the Moroccan despot will try to force new concessions to his pressured interlocutors.

Rabat is wary of the political weight of Podemos and the separatists in the coalition government. Their leaders openly support the Polisario Front and are supporters of the 1995 UN resolution in which the Security Council “reiterates its commitment to the holding, without further delay, of a free, fair and impartial referendum for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

The defense of national interests

The first proof that no one in the PSOE, let alone Pedro Sanchez, has publicly come forward admitting weaknesses in the handling of the conflict with Morocco has been a communiqué issued this Sunday by the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs warning that the “background of the crisis is a question of hostile ulterior motives of Spain with respect to the Sahara”, considered “a sacred cause of the entire Moroccan people”.

The harsh statement also points out that “the Kingdom of Morocco deplores the attitude of Spain” for welcoming on its territory Brahim Ghali, “leader of the separatist militias of the “polisario”, prosecuted for serious war crimes and grave violations of human rights”.

Said and done. On Tuesday night, the leader of the Polisario Front and president of SADR, Ghali left Spain on a flight to Algeria, after having been discharged from a hospital in Logroño where he was hospitalized.

Algerian President Abdelmayid Tebune (l) and Algerian Army chief General Said Chengriha (c) visit Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali (r) at a military hospital in Algiers. The leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali returned last night “safe and sound”, according to sources of the movement, to continue his recovery from his illness in Algeria, a country that remains silent and considers the crisis a bilateral affair between Spain and Morocco. (Image: EFE)

The Spanish government could have made a firm disavowal of Morocco’s offensive against the Polisario leader, but did not dare to do so. Once again, Sanchez has not only offered a weak and hesitant image to defend the cause of this independence movement that aspires to the liberation of its territory, but has become an accomplice of Mohamed VI’s strategy to criminalize Spain.

In this context and taking advantage of its honeymoon with Biden, Morocco will seek to certify sovereignty over the Sahara, the reinforcement of its military supremacy in the area and an “overlapping of waters with the Canary Islands and the mutual claim of an extension of the continental shelf to 350 nautical miles”, which would mean a new delimitation of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), according to a recent report by the Institute for Security and Culture.

It is evident that the Executive of Sanchez is at the mercy of political and diplomatic crossroads that he no longer controls.

Will Sanchez fall into the next big trap prepared by Morocco, following the example of his ill-fated advisor Zapatero? Everything seems to indicate yes, taking into account the strategy followed in recent years by the Spanish left to let all kinds of Moroccan aggressions and declarations go unpunished, in exchange for “safeguarding” good relations.

Should this happen, Spain -and therefore the European Union- will be subjected to an unprecedented migratory blackmail from Rabat. And the worst thing is that the American government will firmly support it.

If the migration policy of the Socialist Government is erratic and inconsistent, that of the European Union is conspicuous by its absence. The suppression of the internal borders between the main countries of the European Union has as compensation a greater demand for control of the external perimeter, a task in which Spain should assume an enormous responsibility.

The migratory flow between a region like the Maghreb – dominated by violence, epidemics, corruption and wars – and an affluent Europe – also immersed in an internal debate on the commitment to mandatory solidarity and the urgency of closing its borders – seems inevitable. But it is not inevitable that this phenomenon should be brought about by blackmail and the positioning of forces, instruments unworthy of democratic nations.

The dangerous escalation of tension in recent days on the southern border once again brings to the forefront a major scenario of discrepancies in the face of which Brussels – but above all Spain – will have to adopt all the necessary measures of reprobation.

Dismantling Morocco’s strategy, from the firmness in the defense of national interests, and on the basis of understanding, dialogue and respect, should be Spain’s main objective. Not to do so is to sow insecurity and, in the end, to accept the hegemony of authoritarianism over freedom.

Juan Carlos Sánchez, journalist and writer. His columns are published in different newspapers in Spain and the United States. He is the author of several books and is preparing the essay "Nación y libertad en el pensamiento económico del Conde Pozos Dulces" // Juan Carlos es periodista y escritor. Sus columnas se publican en diferentes diarios de España y EE.UU. Autor de varios libros, tiene en preparación la obra de ensayo “Nación y libertad en el pensamiento económico del Conde Pozos Dulces”