Taking sides

Sánchez's most recent decision to back Morocco over the Western Sahara territory is his most dramatic and irresponsible to date

Mark Nayler
MARK NAYLER

The pandemic in Spain has told us a great deal about the way in which Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez prefers to govern: behind firmly closed doors and by flouting normal procedures, sometimes to an extent that the resulting course of action was later deemed illegal (lockdown). Yet the latest surprise announcement from his runaway government, backing Morocco's autonomy plan for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, is the most dramatic and irresponsible to date.

It's often hard to remember that Sanchez leads a minority government that sits on just 155 of the 350 seats in Congress, 21 short of a majority. In theory it should be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for such a lightweight administration to change Spain's foreign policy in any important respect. Unless, that is, it simply does what it wants under the cover of darkness and silence.

Spain has been officially neutral on the Western Sahara issue since 1975, when it handed joint control of the region to Morocco and Mauritania. You might have thought, therefore, that the decision to back Morocco, which currently occupies 80% of the territory, merited discussion with Algeria. Sharing borders with Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara, Algeria is a major supplier of gas to Spain and one of the country's key allies in Africa. It also backs the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi nationalist movement started in 1973 to oppose Spanish occupation of the disputed region.

In an unintentionally hilarious understatement, Sánchez said that he'd been working "silently" on the agreement with Morocco for ten months; but the Polisario Front, which along with Algeria wants an independence referendum in the region, sees things differently. In a damning press release, the movement said that Madrid's "heinous" partnership with Rabat "encourages aggression and the politics of fait accompli".

The U-turn will cause problems at home, too. Podemos, nominally half of Spain's coalition government, supports independence for Western Sahara and claims that it wasn't consulted during the negotiations with Morocco. This is becoming a familiar complaint from the leftist party. With every unilateral decision he takes, Sanchez further weakens the unity and credibility of his partnership with Podemos. Sanchez is also jeopardising his flagship 'Focus Africa' initiative, meant to improve infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa and reduce illegal migration to Spain. It's unclear how the Socialist leader plans to make the 2020s his mutually-beneficial "decade in Africa", as he pledged when announcing the plan last spring, at the same time as taking sides in the Western Sahara dispute. The way in which a government governs is just as important, if not more so, than the policies it introduces. Whether or not you agree with what it stands for in the Western Sahara conflict, the Polisario Front is right to criticise Sánchez's penchant for government by fait accompli - his damaging preference for Royal Decree over parliamentary debate.

Unfortunately, that's how the Socialist leader prefers to operate, both at home and abroad.