Algerian reprisals thrust Spain into new North African dispute

New standoff could have an impact on the flow of immigrants and gas into southern Europe

Having recently repaired its frayed relationship with Morocco, Spain is now paying a high price by getting mired in a dispute with another North African neighbour Algeria. It’s a standoff which could feasibly affect the flow of both immigrants and gas into southern Europe.

This week Algeria suspended a 20-year-old friendship treaty with Spain, citing the “violation of its legal, moral and political obligations” with regard to the territory of Western Sahara. The North African country has also declared a freeze on bilateral trade, potentially affecting around €2 billion in Spanish exports per year.

This has been triggered by a shift in Madrid’s stance on the long-standing sovereignty issue surrounding Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony about three times the size of Ireland. In March, Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez ended nearly five decades of Spanish neutrality by backing Morocco’s proposal that Western Sahara should be granted autonomous status, but under its supervision.

The policy change has been widely criticised by the Spanish opposition and some of the prime minister’s allies, who have cast it as a betrayal of the Saharawi people. But on Wednesday Sánchez defended the decision.

“Forty-seven years of unresolved conflict caused by the Saharan question should be enough to make us understand that we have to change our position,” he said.

That change followed substantial pressure exerted by Morocco. In May of 2021 it allowed more than 10,000 undocumented migrants to cross its border into the Spanish city of Ceuta in the space of 36 hours, triggering a logistical crisis. That was seen as one of several reprisals by Morocco for Spain’s apparent unwillingness to favour its claim to Western Sahara and also the Sánchez government’s decision to allow a rebel military leader from the territory to be treated in a Spanish hospital for Covid-19.

Although Sánchez’s sudden pivot ended that diplomatic spat, it has now created a new one with Algeria, which has a hostile relationship with Morocco and supports full independence for the people of Western Sahara.

The European Commission has closed ranks with Spain. In a statement on Friday, it described Algeria as “an important partner for the EU in the Mediterranean and a key actor for regional stability”. But it also condemned Algeria’s actions, warning that the bloc “is ready to stand up against any type of coercive measures applied against an EU member state.”

Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Albares, meanwhile, promised “a firm defence of our companies and Spanish interests”.

One of the main concerns is immigration, with Spain relying on its North African neighbours to control the flow of migrants crossing from both Morocco and Algeria in recent years. “Morocco is now helping a lot,” the head of the Spanish police charged with border controls in Tenerife, Juan Luis Pérez Martín, said in May. “The main uncertainty is over how Algeria reacts [to the new policy].”

A total of 11,330 Algerians reached Spanish territory in 2021, according to police figures. So far this year only 1,250 have arrived, although there are fears that Algeria could emulate Morocco’s former practice of deliberately lifting controls and allowing large numbers of migrants to depart.

Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska remained adamant that immigration would not be affected by the new crisis, saying that bilateral co-operation “is absolutely permanent”.

The other obvious area of concern is energy given that Spain is Algeria’s third biggest buyer of natural gas after France and Italy, much of which travels along the Medgaz pipeline to the southern port of Almería. Cutting off that supply, which makes up around 40 per cent of Spain’s total gas imports, would be a drastic move. However, Algeria’s trade freeze does not affect gas and the main Spanish contract with Algerian energy firm Sonatrach is not due to expire until 2032. Gas prices, however, will be up for review well before then.