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The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, was dismissed from her position in July 2021, after the decision to allow a 72-year-old man into Spain from Algeria to receive urgent medical treatment for Covid-19 led to the biggest bilateral crisis between Morocco and Spain in decades. The man was Brahim Gali, leader of the Polisario Front, the armed movement fighting for Sahrawi self-determination in Western Sahara. His presence in Spain disturbed Moroccan officials so much that they responded by encouraging and allowing eight thousand immigrants to enter Spanish territory illegally through the border in Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves in North Africa and part of the EU’s territory. The tension was reduced in the following days, returning to a situation of relative normality, but the crisis highlighted the importance of a healthy EU-Morocco relationship. The areas of shared interests are many, as are the potential threats, including in matters such as energy, immigration, security and trade. 

Former minister González Laya is being investigated by a Spanish judge for her actions to aid the access of Brahim Gali into Spain. His entry was requested by the Algerian government, which flew Gali to Spain in its presidential plane after the Spanish government approved his arrival. But he entered the country in a potentially illegal manner, with fake documentation and an anonymous identity. At the time, he was also being investigated by Spain’s National Court for allegations of human rights violations. The Moroccan government, for which Gali and his Polisario Front are public enemy number one, was vocally outraged by the Spanish government’s actions. But the Polisario Front counts with the support of the Algerian government, which partly explains the historic and current animosity between Morocco and Algeria. Spain, for its part, also has a role to play in the outcome of the conflict in Western Sahara, as the territory’s administrator until 1976.

The conflict in Western Sahara, which is de facto largely under Moroccan control, is crucial to understand Morocco’s foreign policy priorities. The Moroccan government seeks international recognition of its sovereignty over the mostly deserted territory. It got just that in December 2020, when the United States, at the time led by Donald Trump, recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. In exchange, Morocco established official relations with Israel, as part of the historic Abraham Accords. In fact, Morocco’s growing confidence to act forcefully in the international stage is largely stimulated by its ever-closer partnership with the United States. Morocco’s relationship with the U.S. has been friendly for decades, including during the Cold War, but it has recently grown stronger, as the U.S. has found in the North African country a useful ally in the region, arming it heavily and with advanced technology. 

The EU’s position towards Western Sahara and its international standing is more complex. Of course, recognizing Moroccan autonomy over the territory would do much to reduce the biggest source of potential tension between the EU and its North African neighbour. In September 2021, the General Court of the European Union ruled that EU-Morocco trade deals covering farm products and fish were not valid because they were reached without the consent of the people of Western Sahara, recognizing the Polisario Front’s role in representing the Sahrawi people. Progress in reaching a solution to the Western Sahara problem would do much to reduce such impediments to deeper EU-Morocco collaboration, but the UN decades-old process to hold an independence referendum in Western Sahara is stalled. Morocco proposes a solution based on autonomy for Western Sahara but under Moroccan sovereignty. Spain, as the former colonial power in Western Sahara and still de jure administrator of the territory according to the UN, officially supports the UN process, but it has little force behind it. The status of Western Sahara is clearly an obstacle to optimal relations with Morocco; the EU should proactively mediate to encourage all sides in the conflict to reach an agreement which guarantees the rights and autonomy of the Sahrawi people while overcoming a conflict that is an impediment to regional progress, even if that means doing away with the UN process. 

A necessary actor in such a breakthrough would be Algeria, which currently hosts the Polisario Front’s operations base and actively supports the movement. Algeria and Morocco have been regional rivals since the Cold War, during which Algeria was in the Soviet sphere of influence and Morocco pro-Western. Their antipathy still lasts, to the point that in August 2021 Algeria broke diplomatic ties with Morocco, following recent disagreements over Western Sahara and Israel. To make things even more complicated, in October 2021 Algeria and France entered a diplomatic dispute, sparked by President Macron’s comments about France’s colonial past in Algeria and a row over visas. The Algerian government closed its airspace to French military jets. 

Current bad relations between Algeria and Morocco, as well as irregular tensions between Spain and Morocco and between France and Algeria, are detrimental for EU interests, as both North-African countries should be important partners. There are shared challenges in counterterrorism, immigration and energy. For example, Algeria is the third biggest natural gas exporter to the EU. For Spain, over 45% of imported gas comes from Algeria, its biggest provider. The Maghreb-Europe pipeline, which transports much of that gas from Algeria to Spain through Morocco, is under threat. The pipeline’s contract expires at the end of October, with current tensions between Morocco and Algeria making the renewal of the contract unlikely. This represents a serious risk for Spain, as well as for Portugal, during a period with soaring energy prices in Europe. 

Furthermore, the Maghreb region, which includes Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco, is essential for the EU in the spheres of security and immigration. With Libya a failed state, Morocco and Algeria are important partners in EU counterterrorism and security operations to combat jihadist groups in the Sahel, led by France with the support of several EU countries. As the recent border crisis in Ceuta shows, as well as the 2015 immigration crisis in the Mediterranean and the Libyan experience, counting with the cooperation of EU neighbourhood countries is crucial to control illegal immigration. By sending eight thousand immigrants into Ceuta, which has a population of just 83,500, Morocco emphasized its leverage, showing the chaos it could potentially inflict if its interests were challenged. 

On the economic side, there are also strong arguments to foster closer EU relations with Morocco (and Algeria), building more deep-rooted ties between the countries and peoples of the Western Mediterranean. Morocco’s population is significant, nearly 37 million people, and growing. It is the EU’s 20th biggest trade partner, representing 1% of the EU’s total trade in goods in 2020. For Morocco, the EU is by far its biggest trade partner, accounting for over 50% of trade. Algeria, with a population of nearly 44 million, is the EU’s 28th biggest trade partner. These numbers can and should improve, which is the intent of the EU Commission as it has vowed to protect EU-Morocco trade agreements after the recent ruling by the General Court of the European Union. Southern European countries would benefit from the creation of an area of shared prosperity and trade in the Western Mediterranean. 

Political, territorial and historical disputes have proven an impediment not only to greater trade integration, but also to regional collaboration in other key areas. If the EU wants to project global influence and stand as a superpower at the level of China and the United States, it needs to show it can foster stability and effective diplomacy in its own backyard. The EU should focus on promoting a resolution to Morocco’s intertwined political disputes in the region, both in Western Sahara and with Algeria, recognizing that Morocco is an increasingly important player on the global stage, with growing ties to the U.S. and Israel, both European allies. Achieving a breakthrough to find durable solutions to Morocco’s frozen conflicts would greatly facilitate a deeper and more coordinated regional response to common challenges, benefiting the Western Mediterranean as a whole.