Spanish diplomacy loses its traditional balance between Morocco and Algeria at the worst time
The then Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, greeted the President of the Spanish Government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, at a summit with Arab countries in Algiers in March 2005.
The then Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, greeted the President of the Spanish Government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, at a summit with Arab countries in Algiers in March 2005.ZOHRA BENSEMRA (REUTERS)

Since the Transition, Spanish foreign policy has practiced a difficult balancing act between Morocco and Algeria, its two most important neighbors on the other side of the Strait. If Morocco is a preferred partner, Algeria is a priority. If one is necessary, the other indispensable. Every time a step closer to one has been taken, it has been compensated with an approach to the other, so as not to arouse suspicion or jealousy. At times, the Spanish government has aligned itself more with one than with the other (Aznar approached Algeria, outraged at Morocco; and Zapatero approached Rabat, trying to rebuild relations), but the pendulum always tried to return to the point of equilibrium.

This time, however, the tightrope diplomacy has fallen off the wire and there was no network to avoid the bump. Algeria’s decision to suspend commercial exchanges with Spain, freezing bank payments for the importation of goods and services, means moving from measures of a symbolic and political nature —call for consultations with the ambassador or suspension of the 2002 friendship agreement— to economic retaliation.

Last Wednesday, in Congress, President Pedro Sánchez made a “positive balance” of the two months that have passed since, on April 7, he met in Rabat with King Mohamed VI and signed the roadmap for the normalization of relations: air and sea connections have been restored, Operation Crossing the Strait has been organized and the reopening of the borders of Ceuta and Melilla has begun. On May 17, the passage of Spaniards and foreigners with a Schengen visa was allowed; and on the 31st of the same month, the door was reopened to cross-border workers, albeit slowly, given the visa requirement.

In addition, cooperation on immigration has been reestablished (which includes flights to repatriate irregulars) and the bilateral commission that debates the delimitation of waters on the Atlantic façade, opposite the Canary Islands, which has not met for 15 years, has been reactivated. years.

However, the Melilla customs office (which Morocco unilaterally closed in the summer of 2018) has not yet been opened and the highest Moroccan customs official questioned, although he later backed down, the viability of a future customs office in Ceuta. Sánchez said in Congress that both countries agree that “the customs of Ceuta and Melilla work under a commercial dispatch regime”, but the suspicion remains that Rabat and Madrid do not refer to the same thing when they speak of “control of people and goods”. One seems to allude to the control of goods carried by travelers and the other to the export of manufactures. Morocco has no interest in customs that will compete with the neighboring ports of Tanger Med and Beni Ensar and is suspicious that it could be interpreted as an implicit recognition of Spanish sovereignty over the two places. Until the customs open, for which there is still no date, the doubt will remain. What has been achieved so far takes us back to the situation that existed in the fall of 2018, when Spain still maintained its neutrality over the Sahara conflict.

Spain has compelling reasons to get along with Morocco: exports to that country totaled 9,499 million last year, compared to only 1,888 to Algeria, with a trade surplus of more than 2,000 million, while it accumulates a deficit of almost 3,000 with its neighbor . So far this year, 7,165 immigrants arrived by sea from Morocco, while 1,250 (less than a fifth) departed from Algeria. But he also has reasons not to get along badly with Algeria: if Rabat is the first Spanish client in Africa, Algiers is the second; If the Moroccan is the first nationality of those arriving by boat, the Algerian is the second (13,178 compared to 11,330 in 2021). And Algeria has traditionally been the first supplier of gas to Spain and the only one through a tube (which lowers its cost).

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The balance that the Spanish government had managed to maintain among its neighbors to the south has been broken. Not all the fault is theirs: Rabat and Algiers live on the brink of armed confrontation, with the gas pipeline that crosses Morocco closed under lock and key and Algerian airspace banned for Moroccan flights. But in this new cold war in the desert, Spain has aligned itself with one of the sides and is beginning to pay the consequences. The most difficult thing will be to redo with Algeria what Sánchez says he has recovered with Morocco: confidence.

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