MADRID – Spain radically changes its position on the control of Western Sahara. For the first time, Madrid is backing Morocco’s plans. This country wants greater control over the area that separatists have resisted for years.
“We are entering a new phase in the relationship with Morocco based on mutual respect,” the Spanish government of Prime Minister Sanchez said in a statement. “This new phase follows the lines of a clear and ambitious plan. It guarantees the stability, sovereignty, and prosperity of both countries.”
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Various Spanish media point to the role that the migration problems at the borders between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla play in Spain’s suddenly changed position. The move could improve relations with Morocco. Morocco said it was happy with Spain’s “constructive commitments”.
Spain has so far chosen to remain neutral in the conflict over Western Sahara, a former colony of the country that is southwest of Morocco. However, according to the UN, the area is not a sovereign state, but neither does it belong to Morocco.
Opponents react angrily to the Spanish change of course. Below Polisario, is the separatist movement, which stands up for self-determination for the inhabitants who traditionally live in Western Sahara. The movement calls it a “serious mistake” Algeria also strongly criticises Spain. The country offers full support to Polisario because of the poor relationship it has with neighbouring Morocco. Algeria immediately recalled its ambassador from Spain after the news.
The disputed autonomy of Western Sahara
Sovereignty over Western Sahara has been disputed since 1975. Then Spain left and Morocco largely took it. A guerrilla war for independence for the area followed and lasted until 1991 when the UN managed to reach a ceasefire with a peacekeeping mission. That was based on the promise that a referendum would soon follow in which the Sahrawis could express themselves on independence. However, this was stopped by Morocco with all their might.
The country does not want to give up an area the size of England. Rabat would rather see a kind of self-government of Western Sahara under Moroccan leadership. These plans can now count on approval from Spain. Furthermore, Spain’s support is seen as a ‘breakthrough’.
Economic interests in Western Sahara
Although the area is arid and desert-like, economic interests play a role. In particular, the phosphate source, three-quarters of the known reserves on Earth, has enormous potential. In addition, there are good fishing waters and possibly oil.
Migration problems as the driving force behind Spain’s change of course
Spain hopes to receive help in combating illegal immigration in exchange for aid to Morocco. Last year, the treatment of Polisario leader Brahim Gali in a Spanish hospital led to a deterioration of the ties between Madrid and Rabat. Morocco saw this as Spanish interference in the conflict and immediately broke diplomatic ties and closed the borders. Thousands of migrants then walked into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. According to Spain, Morocco then turned a blind eye as a ‘blackmail tool’ towards Madrid.
Disagreement in coalition
Within the Spanish coalition, the government’s move towards Morocco is not welcomed with applause. The socialist party Podemos, through Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz, said it would continue to “defend” the interests of the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara.