Western Sahara: Why Spain is now endorsing the Moroccan Autonomy Plan

In Morocco, the Western Sahara issue reached a historic turning point. The endorsement by Spain of the Moroccan position of a broad autonomy for the disputed territory reinforces the international momentum of recognition of the territorial integrity of the Cherifian Kingdom.

It is the end of Spanish neutrality on the Western Sahara issue. The letter sent by Pedro Sanchez to the King of Morocco, as well as the various statements of the Spanish government, to which is added a statement from the Moroccan diplomacy, confirm the thawing of relations between Morocco and Spain on Friday 18 March.

Last December, Spanish Foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, statted that the crisis with Morocco had already been “put aside”. Faced with Rabat’s silence, another attempt at appeasement was foiled, this time by the King of Spain himself. On 17 January, the Spanish sovereign pleaded for a future in which Morocco and Spain “would be united to face the challenges of today and tomorrow”, while calling for “redefining together a relationship for the 21st century, on stronger and more solid pillars”.

Except that the new Moroccan doctrine is based on clarity, as evidenced by Mohammed VI’s speech of 6 November: “we are fully justified in expecting our partners to formulate much bolder and clearer positions on the territorial integrity of the kingdom,” he said, in a message clearly addressed to his Iberian neighbours. Indeed, Rabat has imposed a condition sine qua non for the normalisation of relations with Madrid: the inflexion of the Spanish position on the Sahara. The statements of Moroccan officials also confirm this. On 20 January, the Moroccan government spokesman, Mustapha Baïtas, stated that Rabat needs “a lot of clarity”, even if “the ambition to renew relations with Spain is there”.

However, Spain, which is none other than the former colonising country of this territory, had always, since its withdrawal in 1975, defended a position of neutrality. In other words: no more than compliance with UN resolutions. After half a century of hesitation, Madrid finally chose its side. A decision that Rabat appreciates “highly”, as indicated in the communiqué of Moroccan diplomacy on Friday 18 March, which followed the message of Pedro Sanchez to the King of Morocco in which he announced the position taken by Madrid on the Sahara issue.

A new phase between Rabat and Madrid

“We are starting a new phase in relations with Morocco and are definitively closing a crisis with a strategic partner”, were the words of the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation, José Manuel Albares, on Friday 18 March, before the Spanish press in Barcelona. This new stage will be crowned by the drawing up of a “clear and ambitious” roadmap, with the aim of guaranteeing the stability and sovereignty, territorial integrity and prosperity of both kingdoms.

For many observers, this is a “major diplomatic victory” that Morocco has achieved thanks to the personal involvement of Mohammed VI. During the royal speech of 20 August 2021, the Cherifian sovereign had also mentioned the negotiations between the two kingdoms that he was following in a personal capacity. According to the monarch, ‘the aim was not only to find a way out of this crisis, but also to seize the opportunity to redefine the bases and parameters that govern these relations’.

Now that Madrid has put an end to the diplomatic row with Rabat, a high-level meeting between Morocco and Spain is planned for the coming weeks. However, the Spanish prime minister is expected to visit Sebta and Melilla on 23 March, according to the official news agency EFE, 10 months after his last visit. The presidents of the two Spanish presidencies, Juan Vivas and Eduardo de Castro, are said to be discussing with their head of the Executive their “expectations” of this new stage. Some Iberian media are already talking about “an imminent reopening” of the border crossings of Sebta and Melilia, closed in 2018 and 2019.

Satisfaction of Morocco’s partners

To this outburst of support for the territorial integrity of Morocco, we can add the comment of American diplomacy which was not long in coming. “Washington shares the position of Spain on the issue of the Moroccan Sahara,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State in a statement to the Spanish news agencies “EFE” and “Europa press”. In the same vein, the American ambassador to Spain, Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon, described the Moroccan plan for Saharan autonomy as “reasonable and feasible”, reiterating her country’s support for Morocco’s initiative, during an appearance on Spanish radio.

This development of relations between Morocco and Spain has also caused the EU to react. The spokeswoman of the European Union (EU), Nabila Massrali sees that this new spanish position can only be “beneficial for the implementation of the Euro-Moroccan partnership as a whole. She recalled that the European position is aligned with that of the UN, considering the Moroccan autonomy initiative as the most credible, realistic and viable solution to the conflict over the Sahara.

This is a historic shift in relations between the southern Mediterranean countries. After France, Germany and more recently Spain, will other European countries rallying to the Moroccan position?