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Three's a crowd
The Euro Zone

Three's a crowd

Spain's dilemma can be stated very simply: it can't please Morocco without riling Algeria, and vice versa

Friday, 23 February 2024, 17:44

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Diplomatic ties between Spain and Morocco have been particularly strong since March 2022 when Pedro Sánchez reversed Spanish neutrality over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The most recent discussions between the two countries took place on Wednesday during the PSOE leader's visit to Rabat to meet the Moroccan king Mohammed VI.

Afterwards, Sánchez told a gaggle of journalists that the two men had talked about their countries' joint efforts to reduce migration from west Africa to Europe, via Spain's Canary Islands; but he neglected to mention the other major issue - namely, the state of Spanish relations with Algeria, the third member of what has been, for the last couple of years, a tense triangular relationship.

Spain's dilemma can be stated very simply: it can't please Morocco without riling Algeria, and vice versa. When Sánchez declared himself in favour of Morocco's autonomy plan for Western Sahara, in a last-ditch attempt to heal a diplomatic rift with Rabat, the Algerian government was furious. Along with the Polisario Front, it seeks a UN-backed referendum on self-determination for the Sahwari people, and regards Moroccan claims to the region as illegitimate. So, following Sánchez's U-turn, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Madrid and froze a twenty-year friendship treaty with Spain. Rabat celebrated as Argel scowled.

Algeria sent a new ambassador to Madrid last November, which seemed to be a sign that relations between the two countries were thawing. Also encouraging was the restoration of trading ties between Spain and Algeria in January, after a 20-month suspension that is estimated to have resulted in losses of around a billion euros.

But last month, a visit to Algeria by Spain's foreign minister Jose Manuel Albares was cancelled at the last minute. Some Spanish media outlets claimed that this was due to a clash of schedules, but others suspected that it had more to do with Sánchez's revised position on Western Sahara. After all, the friendship treaty between Madrid and Argel still hasn't been officially restored.

Sánchez might therefore have been expected to say something this week about whether Spain and Algeria are warming to one another again; instead, he reiterated his backing for Morroco's autonomy plan for Western Sahara - which basically answers the question anyway.

Spain and Algeria have certainly not returned to the close relations they enjoyed throughout 2021. In June that year, the Polisario Front's leader Brahim Ghali was treated for Covid in a Spanish hospital. Morocco was angry at what it saw as Spain's siding with Algeria over Western Sahara: Rabat scowled as Argel rested easy. The Moroccan government was only placated when Sánchez came out in favour of its claims to the region; and the cost of that was a rift with Algeria that still hasn't healed. Where Spain, Algeria and Morocco are concerned, there is definitely a crowd.

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