With the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominating the European political stage, there was never a better moment for Spain to move to rid itself of its most nagging problem — the decolonisation of Western Sahara, stalled for 47 years by the Moroccan monarchy’s refusal to accept a referendum on the future of the region.
Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) foreign minister José Manuel Albares flagged the potential abandonment of Spain’s commitments to its former colony on March 18.
He stated that Spain was accepting as the basis for resolving the conflict a 2007 Moroccan proposal to incorporate the region into the Moroccan state as an “autonomous province”.
PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had previously written to King Mohammed VI that he appreciated “the importance that the question of the Sahara has for Morocco” while the 2007 proposal was “the most serious, realistic and credible” approach available.
The Moroccan foreign ministry replied: “The Kingdom of Morocco highly appreciates Spain's positive and constructive commitments on the issue of the Moroccan Sahara.”
The deal casts into serious doubt ongoing Spanish commitment to an independence referendum for the region, violates the PSOE’s own policy, and in effect adopts the orientation of the right-wing opposition People’s Party (PP).
The PP’s only complaint about the change was that it — as Spain’s other “party of government” — wasn’t consulted.
If implemented, the new approach would legitimise Morocco’s partial occupation of Western Sahara, which began with the 1975 “Green March”.
It would condemn that part of the Sahrawi population living under this occupation to a future of continuing repression, especially of those who still fight for their people’s right to self-determination.
For the rest of the Sahrawi population, surviving for four decades in camps in Algeria, the fading prospect of being able to return to an independent homeland would practically vanish.
Little wonder that indignant Sahrawis interviewed by Spanish media described the decision as “a double betrayal” and “a knife turned in an open wound”.
Brahim Gali, leader of the Polisario Front, which has conducted the liberation struggle in the Western Sahara, said the new Spanish position was “shameful and deplorable because it is illegal and immoral and involves a flagrant violation of international legality”.
He accused Spain of “having unilaterally evaded its international obligations as the power occupying the territory. Western Sahara is not Moroccan according to international law".
For older Sahrawis, the new policy recalls the notorious 1975 Madrid agreement between the moribund Francisco Franco dictatorship, Morocco and Mauritania: had it been implemented it would have divided the Western Sahara between these powers without consulting the Sahrawi people.
Spain’s change of line follows the United States’ recognition — in the dying days of the Donald Trump administration — of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the subsequent Moroccan recognition of Israel, and the not-so-secret pressure from France, colonial power with Spain in Morocco, to accept Moroccan control of much of Western Sahara.
It also follows the decision of the new German government of Social-Democrat Olaf Scholz to support the autonomy plan.
However, the greatest pressure on the Sánchez government was the need to resolve the crisis opened by its April 2021 decision to offer hospital treatment to Gali.
This outraged the Moroccan government, which retaliated by opening its border with the Spanish Moroccan enclave of Ceuta, leading to an “invasion” of 8000 Moroccans and Sub-Saharans.
The details of the deal are yet to be announced, but one key point is a mutual commitment to abstain from “unilateral actions” like border openings for asylum-seekers seeking to cross into Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s other Moroccan enclave.
An indicator of the sensitivity of the issue of Western Sahara in Spanish politics was the fact that the official announcement of “a new stage in the relationship with Morocco based on mutual respect” did not even contain the word “Sahara”.
The Polisario Front called on all Spanish parties to pressure the PSOE to drop its accommodation with Morocco and to “accept its responsibilities, which do not disappear over time: to end colonialism in the Western Sahara in accordance with the United Nations Charter, especially with regard to the right of colonised peoples to exercise their right to self-determination and independence”.
The PSOE’s announcement brought condemnation from all forces to its left, including from its junior governing partner, Unidas Podemos (UP), which had not been informed of the new line before its announcement.
Third deputy prime minister and UP leader Yolanda Díaz tweeted reaffirmation of her compromise with defence of the Sahrawi people and UN resolutions.
For the United Left (IU), member of the UP coalition, “denying the Sahrawi people their right to decolonisation of their territory means siding with the brutal Moroccan occupation and its systematic violation of human rights”.
The PSOE position was also attacked by the regional parties that usually support it against the parties of the all-Spanish right.
Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) senator Estefanía Beltrán de Heredia attacked its “shameful abandonment of the Sahrawi people” while Cristina Rodríguez, spokesperson of the Valencian force Commitment told the regional parliament: “We are talking about a territory under military siege by Morocco, which in 2020 broke the ceasefire signed with the Polisario Front in 1991 to end the war that began between the two sides in 1975. A ceasefire that is non-existent and implies a state of war that the international community has just forgotten about.”
Rodriguez reminded the parliament that 84 countries recognised the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic and that it was a founding member of the African Union, whose founding charter condemned unilateral attempts like Morocco’s to change borders inherited from colonialism.
In Catalonia, all pro-independence parties scored the PSOE’s new position, with Republican Left of Catalonia premier Pere Aragonès stating that “Spain's decision is a mistake that will have significant consequences, especially for the Sahrawi people”.
Within the PSOE, the government of the Balearic Islands broke ranks with Madrid. PSOE premier Francina Armengol told the regional parliament on March 22 that “the Balearic government will help the Sahrawi people. It is a people that has suffered in a refugee camp for 40 years. We defend human rights; it can’t be any other way".
Even the PSOE’s dormant Socialist Left has protested. It called for an emergency meeting of the party’s federal executive to reaffirm its 40-year-long support for a UN-administered referendum on Western Sahara’s future.
Algeria in the dark?
Sánchez has multiplied his problems by his handling of relations with Algeria, the main supporter of the Polisario Front and a major supplier of gas to Spain.
Albares said that Algeria had been informed, yet the Algerian authorities have sworn they knew nothing about the decision before it was made public.
The Algerian upper house, the Council of the Nation, adopted a resolution on March 20, which stated that “Spain must accept its historical, political and moral responsibility as well as its responsibility to put an end to the disastrous consequences for the Sahrawi people”.
At the time of writing (March 22), it is not clear whether Algeria’s policy toward Spain will change materially, but given the hostility between Algeria and Morocco, that cannot be ruled out.
The reaction to the PSOE’s change of line is due to the strong Spanish solidarity sentiment with the Sahrawi people and the variety of activities in which it gets expressed: brigades to the refugee camps, annual summer holiday visits by Sahrawi children to “their family” in Spain, the universal support given by trade unions, civil society and religious organisations to the Sahrawi right to self-determination, and a rich interchange between Sahrawi and Spanish cultures.
It was in light of this reaction that the PSOE head office put out a special note to members on “The Importance of Relations Between Spain and Morocco”.
It argues that the new arrangement with Morocco stabilises an important relationship without abandoning the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.
Such double-speak will probably be enough to calm rank-and-file nervousness in the PSOE.
The other factor that may well help Sánchez ride out the storm is the attitude of his minor partner. UP has already made it clear that, important as the rights of the Sahrawi people are, they are not so important as its five ministerial positions.
The PSOE-UP government is safe, whatever foreign policy crimes its leader commits.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]