Josep Borrell, formerly foreign minister under Pedro Sánchez and now occupant of the same role for the EU, seems to want to have it both ways in the dispute over Western Sahara. Last weekend he visited Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune to assure him that Brussels is keen to find a solution to the North African country's standoff with Spain, which was triggered last March when Sánchez suddenly endorsed Morocco's autonomy plan for Western Sahara. Algeria, whose Polisario Front movement supports a UN-backed referendum for the Swahari people, was furious.
Borrell initially backed Spain's announcement that Morocco's plan for Western Sahara was the most "serious, realistic and credible" way of resolving this seemingly intractable dispute. In a TV interview shortly after Sánchez announced the U-Turn, which reversed decades of Spanish neutrality, Borrell said that the new stance was "still within the framework of the UN" and that the "the EU continues to advocate the same approach".
Algeria, one of Spain's largest suppliers of liquified natural gas, was so angry at this EU-backed reversal of Spanish foreign policy that in June last year it suspended its twenty year-old friendship treaty with Spain and froze import and export ties (excluding gas exports). Madrid seemed to have patched up relations with Rabat, but only at the cost of cordial diplomacy with another of its key north African allies.
You can imagine Morocco's surprise, therefore, when in August last year Borrell appeared to completely change tack over Western Sahara. Speaking to the Spanish TV channel RTVE, the PSOE member claimed that the position of both the Spanish government and of the EU was "defending the holding of a consultation [i.e. referendum] so that it is the Sahrawi people who decide how they want their future to be".
Was this what it seemed - an endorsement of Algeria's call for a self-determination referendum for the Sahrawi population and a rejection of Morocco's autonomy plan? The two countries involved seemed to think so: Morocco slammed Borrell's remarks as "incoherent" and the country's foreign minister promptly cancelled a meeting the two had scheduled for September. The Polisario Front, though, felt vindicated, saying that the EU minister's announcement showed that "attempts to circumvent the right of the Sahrawi people have not only complicated the situation, but also kept it away from a just solution".
In urging Algeria to ease its hostilities with Spain, Borrell is trying to smooth over a diplomatic row to which he himself has made a substantial - and apparently self-contradictory - contribution. One wonders whether he has the diplomatic nuance to broker an agreement in this complex three-way affair, in which Spain can't please Morocco without angering Algeria or vice versa.
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