It took nearly four months for Algeria’s reaction to the Spanish government’s public acceptance of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara to finally arrive.
Its High Security Council, headed by president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, announced on June 8 that it was suspending the country’s 20-year-old treaty of “friendship, good-neighbourliness and cooperation” with Spain.
Simultaneously, Algeria's banking association told banks that imports of goods and services from Spain were on hold because the treaty had been suspended.
Previously, Algeria — a supporter of the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination and its national liberation movement, the Polisario Front — had only recalled its ambassador from Madrid.
Now, however, Algiers spoke out, denouncing the government of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) for having “given its full support to the illegal and illegitimate form of internal autonomy advocated by the occupying power [Morocco] and worked to promote a colonial fait accompli using spurious arguments”.
Panic in Madrid, Brussels
Madrid panicked. Was Algeria really going to cut trade and investment, putting 300 Spanish projects in Algeria at risk? Would gas imports from Algeria’s state energy company Sonatrach, at times supplying half of Spanish demand, be affected?
Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Albares raced to Brussels to seek support from the European Commission, whose spokesperson Nabila Massrali described the Algerian decision as “deeply worrying”.
While energy minister Teresa Ribera was confident that Sonatrach would abide by its commitments, she acknowledged energy companies were revising their long-term supply contracts now that Russia’s Ukraine invasion had set gas and oil prices skyrocketing.
The friendship treaty also contains clauses committing Algeria and Spain to cooperate in controlling migration. The suspension therefore raised a terrifying spectre for a PSOE facing an electoral cycle beginning with a June 19 poll in Andalusia.
Would this be a string of contests dominated by the “migration threat” — made to measure for the right, especially the xenophobic Vox?
With asylum seeker arrivals from Algeria already on the rise in the Balearic Islands, and Spanish National Police and Civil Guard unions warning of a staff and facilities crisis, PSOE nerves were strained.
The European Commission came to Spain’s rescue on June 10, brandishing a statement by its foreign affairs and trade czars Josep Borrell and Valdis Dombrovskis.
It threatened the Algerians with being dragged through the courts for violating the EU-Algeria Association Agreement, thundering: “Bilateral relations of third countries with individual EU Member States are part of their relations with the EU … and the EU is ready to stand up against any type of coercive measures applied against an EU Member State.”
That same afternoon, the Algerian mission with the EU issued a communiqué that “deplored the haste” with which the European Commission had reacted, not bothering to verify if suspension of Algeria’s friendship agreement with Spain affected its commitments under the Association Agreement.
Moreover, “as for the alleged measure of stopping current transactions with a European partner … it exists in fact only in the minds of those who claim it and those who have been quick to stigmatise it.”
Trade relations would continue as normal, and gas would be delivered according to contract.
With the help of this imperious slap from the EU, it seemed that Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had put Algeria back in its box.
The right-wing opposition, of course, made a song and dance about the “incompetence” of the PSOE-UP government’s handling of the crisis, accusing it of risking billions in export income.
Inés Arrimadas, leader of the neoliberal Citizens, called Sánchez “a public menace to Spain”, while opposition People’s Party (PP) leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo told an election rally in Andalusia that Sánchez “has not only not fixed relations with Morocco; he has wrecked relations with Algeria.”
Sánchez responded by attacking the PP for siding with Algeria: "If a third country pressures Spain and the European Union supports Spain, [the PP] support the third country that’s pressuring Spain.”
The Algerian media lapped up the right’s attacks, but, in their wishful reports about “the Spanish political class isolating Sánchez”, seemed to miss a key point: the sound and fury of daily Spanish politics obscures the PSOE-PP consensus that Western Sahara belongs to Morocco.
They share this position with France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, as President Joe Biden never reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s acceptance of this in exchange for Moroccan recognition of Israel.
Gustavo de Arístegui, former PP MP and Spanish ambassador to India, spelled out this consensus on an integral part of US, NATO and EU North Africa policy, in a radio interview on June 13.
Even while attributing “Algeria’s very angry reaction” to the government’s “clumsiness, lack of foresight and lack of diplomacy”, he asserted that “in private, all Spanish governments have said the same thing that has now been said in public” and “the Moroccan autonomy plan is in no way at odds with UN resolutions.”
For PSOE first Deputy Prime Minister Nadia Calviño, interviewed on June 13, this criticism would have been irrelevant. Algeria would always have rejected the Spanish position, not so much because of its commitment to Western Saharan self-determination, but because “the country is ever more closely aligned with Russia”.
Confirmation came in a June 8 Congress appearance by Sánchez and a June 9 press briefing by foreign minister Albares. They revealed Spain had successfully pressured NATO to include a paragraph covering “threats on its southern flank” in its Strategic Concept 2022 (to be adopted at its June 29–30 Madrid Summit).
Alares said: “We’ve seen how energy supply pressure is used against the sovereignty of our countries, how migrants are used in a totally unacceptable way to put pressure on our borders, and how cyberattacks, including on critical infrastructure, multiply.
“We have seen this on the eastern flank, and we could see the use of these threats on the southern flank … the whole NATO alliance, everyone together, should respond to them in a firm and determined way.”
The most immediate concern is the growing Russian presence in Africa, particularly in Mali, where the mercenary Wagner Group has been invited by the ruling military junta to help in the fight against jihadist groups.
The media have been rife with insinuation about a Russian hand behind the timing of Algeria’s aborted treaty suspension. Commentators have pointed to Algeria’s long-standing ties with the former Soviet Union, its dependence on Russian armaments, its abstention in the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s Ukraine invasion, and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s May 11 visit to Algiers on the 60th anniversary of Algeria-Russia relations.
However, if Algeria did act with a behind-the-scenes accomplice, there is an equally likely suspect: Italy.
Much more dependent on Russian gas supplies than Spain, Italy pulled out all stops to secure Algeria as an alternative source in the face of EU sanctions on Russia.
Before Lavrov appeared in Algiers, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and foreign minister Luigi di Maio had already made visits, offering Italian investments in renewable energy and green hydrogen for gas.
An Italy-Algeria deal was sealed when Tebboune visited Rome on May 26, his presidential plane accompanied by an honour flight of Italian fighter jets.
Conspiracies can never be excluded, but there is no need for one to explain Algeria’s action. The high prices of gas and oil have meant that Algeria’s elite — a combination of the military, secret services and obedient politicians — has scored a big financial windfall.
It can be used to buy social peace for an unpopular government, which was elected in 2019 with less than 40% participation after the repression of the 2019-2021 Hirak movement. It has also lessened Algeria’s dependence on any single buyer.
An emboldened Algeria cut off gas supplies to Morocco last October and threatened it would do the same to Spain on April 24 if it resold any Algerian gas to Morocco. Spain acquiesced.
That may have encouraged Algerian authorities to think they could use gas for a bigger prize — as a weapon to force a change in Spain’s policy on Western Sahara.
If so, the move flopped because it came up against the consensus of the big Western powers: there is no future in their scheme of things for a triviality like the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]