Spain and Morocco to close diplomatic row with Rabat meeting

Madrid has shifted position on Western Sahara issue

Spain's prime minister Pedro Sánchez is due to meet the king of Morocco on Thursday amid hopes that a months-long diplomatic crisis over the North African country's territorial claims has ended.

Relations between the two countries hit a low point in May 2021 when a relaxation of Moroccan border controls allowed more than 10,000 migrants to cross into the Spanish city of Ceuta, which is in North Africa, putting enormous pressure on local authorities and infrastructure. The move was seen as a reprisal by Morocco over Spain's position on the contested territory of Western Sahara.

Morocco has claimed sovereignty of Western Sahara since Spain relinquished control of it in 1975. However, the Polisario Front rebel group has waged a military campaign against the Moroccan army as part of its bid for independence for the territory.

The Spanish government's decision last year to allow Polisario leader Brahim Ghali to be treated for Covid-19 in a hospital in Logroño angered Morocco, triggering the migrant crisis.

However, bilateral relations appear to have been repaired since Spain shifted its long-standing stance on the Western Sahara question last month.

The Spanish government ended four decades of neutrality by backing Morocco’s 2007 proposal that the territory be granted autonomous status under its tutelage. In a letter to King Mohammed VI, Mr Sánchez, a Socialist, described Morocco’s plan as “the most serious, credible and realistic basis for the resolution of this disagreement”.

Detente

Until now, Spain had called for Western Sahara to decide its own future via a referendum, in line with the UN’s position. A first sign of the detente between Madrid and Rabat came when the Moroccan ambassador in Spain returned to her post. The Spanish government now hopes that improved relations will encourage Morocco to clamp down on undocumented migrants who attempt to enter Spain either by reaching Ceuta and its sister city Melilla or by crossing to the Spanish mainland and the Canary Islands.

During Thursday’s scheduled meeting in Rabat, Mr Sánchez is due to share iftar, the evening meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan, with the Moroccan monarch. Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Albares described this as “a very strong gesture of friendship”.

However, the sudden change of tack on Western Sahara has angered Algeria, a major gas supplier to Spain.

It has also drawn severe criticism from across the Spanish political spectrum.

Parties on the left have criticised what they see as the abandonment of the Western Saharan people by Spain, while on the right criticism has focused on the government’s failure to consult before taking its decision.

“This radical U-turn has happened without informing the main party of opposition and without informing or debating in congress or the cabinet,” said Valentina Martínez, of the conservative Popular Party.

Much of the backlash has come from parliamentary allies of Mr Sánchez.

“Nothing but a mean-spirited and myopic calculation could justify not defending with the same conviction the right of the Saharan people to free self-determination in the face of the colonial ambitions of Mohammed VI,” said Gerardo Pisarello, of the leftist Unidas Podemos, the junior partner in Mr Sánchez’s coalition government.