In Morocco, the move from the Spanish PM is seen as a shocking turn of events, an utterly unexpected move from a once-upon-a-time reliable, vocal ally
Rabat – In a remarkable turnaround after repeatedly calling Morocco an “excellent” and “indispensable” partner for Spain and Europe, Spanish Head of government Pedro Sanchez appears to be distancing himself from Morocco on an issue of the utmost importance for Rabat.
In a document entitled “Open Proposal for a Progressive Common Agenda,” published on Tuesday, September 3, the Sanchez-led Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) laid down its vision for a “better future for Spain and Europe.”
As should be expected, the document, which is comprised of 370 policy points encapsulating PSOE vision for both domestic, European and foreign affairs, noticeably featured the Western Sahara question in its section on foreign policy actions deemed of high interest for PSOE.
When it comes to the territorial conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the document noted, rather diplomatically, Spain’s stance has always been one of unreserved commitment to the UN-led process.
“The Spanish government supports the Western Sahara negotiations process, both at the UN and other levels, based on respecting international law,” the document asserted.
Of greater significance, however, was PSOE’s invocation of human rights monitoring for MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara. The Spanish government “supports the extension of the MINURSO mandate to monitor human rights,” it said.
This turnaround, a stark departure from Sanchez’s usual “Morocco is of critical importance for Spain” rhetoric, is set to have far-reaching implications for Madrid-Rabat relations.
In Spain, the change has been interpreted as a gasping-for-breathe move to secure the support of Unidas Podemos, Spain’s unapologetically left-leaning, populist party.
On the Western Sahara question, Podemos, a vocal Polisario supporter, has been one of the main initiators of pro-Polisario PR campaigns in Spain and during EU-Morocco proceedings featuring Western Sahara (the EU-Morocco agriculture and fisheries agreements, for example).
PSOE’s proposal, which contains what Sanchez’s party is calling essential 370 policy points for a “third way” to move Spain forward, are actually Sanchez’s way of winning the much-needed support from Podemos for the formation of a coalition government, according to reports from Spain.
“As deadline for new election looms, Spain’s PM reaches out to Podemos,” El Pais headlined its September 3 story on the new, prospective PSOE-Podemos bromance.
Because he failed to win the absolute majority he needed in the latest snap elections, Sanchez is out for the support he now needs to form a coalition government, even if that means giving up on some policy points he once deemed central to the type of leadership and geopolitical alliance he has long espoused.
In Morocco, by contrast, the move is seen as a disappointing turn of events, an utterly unexpected move from a once-upon-a-time reliable, vocal ally.
Sanchez has been one of the most pro-Morocco European leaders in the past months, consistently defending Morocco’s “strategic value” to both Spain and the EU at large.
He has called Morocco “an exemplary ally,” lauded “Morocco’s key role in multiple priority issues for the European Union,” and vowed, with the solemnity and gravitas of a new convert, that “Spain and Morocco are, today more than ever, two countries united…”
The common denominator of Sanchez’s comments on Morocco, at least until September 3, has been that Rabat is an ally that Madrid cannot afford to lose.
As he now urges for the inclusion of a human rights monitoring clause in MINURSO’s mandate, however, a move that has not been part of the UN-led discussions since 2013, and seen in Rabat as yet another Polisario maneuvering to have the international community call Morocco names for its “blatant disregard for human rights” in Western Sahara, the Spanish PM’s move has been received with a mix of disbelief and dismay.
But past the momentary suspension of disbelief, dismay and unpleasant surprise are what have set in among Moroccan observers and analysts, prompting some to call the Spanish PM out for his “hypocrisy” and duplicity.
At a press briefing on September 5, journalists bombarded Mustapha El Khalfi, the spokesperson of the Moroccan government, with questions about the implications of what is happening in Spain. What is Morocco’s response, or how will it respond? There were other questions, too, all of them one way or another trying to get something, anything (but especially an expression of anger, shock, or ‘deep concern’) from El Khalfi.
To the barrage of questions, El Khalfi, wearing that imperturbable look of “everything is fine, or there is nothing to worry about,” a popular requirement among state officials whose task is to deal with the press, simply commented that what Sanchez’s party is calling for is no longer part of the UN’s agenda in Western Sahara.
That Sanchez and Spain are bringing up a point that was dismissed in 2013, when it was first brought up in resolution talks; and that, more fundamentally, saying what needs to be done in the UN-led Western Sahara process is the exclusive prerogative of the UN Security Council.
El Khalfi may have not sounded “alarmed” or “deeply concerned,” as he delivered his answers with composure and a noticeable resolve to shun anything that could come close to sounding alarmist.
However, he implied, especially in his insistence on leaving Western Sahara to UNSC, that, whatever happens next in the PSOE-Podemos episode, the next weeks or months will come with questions from Rabat for Madrid.
But, of course, the questions will be asked in the behind-the-doors manner diplomats are trained in.
And these, in all likelihood, will be demands to clarify, retract, or water down, as far as Morocco is concerned, the ostensibly pro-Polisario tone of Sanchez’s recent comments. How Rabat and Madrid handle this “clarification-retraction-temporization” episode will define what Morocco-Spain relations will be like for the rest of Sanchez’s premiership.