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Washington and Brussels edge back on Western Sahara

Recognising Algeria's power on gas supply, the US and the EU are rowing back on support for Morocco's plan for the disputed region

After tilting strongly in favour of Rabat's offer of 'limited autonomy' to the Western Sahara as an alternative to a UN-organised referendum, the United States and the European Union now say it is just one of several ways to resolve the four-decade-long dispute. And they both see the UN's involvement, of which Rabat is suspicious, is central to negotiating a solution.

'We continue to view Morocco's Autonomy Plan as serious, credible, and realistic, and one potential approach to meet the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara,' a US official told Africa Confidential (Dispatches, 14/3/22, Rabat's lobbying of Washington on Western Sahara has paid off).

'We are fully engaged diplomatically, in support of the UN and together with our international partners, to reinforce a credible, UN-led, political process leading to an enduring and dignified resolution,' the official added.

This pulls back from the unequivocal backing offered to Rabat by former President Donald Trump (AC Vol 61 No 25, King reaps Saharan dividend).

In what we hear was a unilateral decision, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez endorsed Rabat's Autonomy plan as part a wider deal with that includes accords on migration and the management of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (Dispatches, 24/3/22, Dropping the Polisario Front, Madrid backs Rabat).

Sánchez's deal with Rabat was publicly opposed by others in the ruling coalition, including the radical Podemos party.

But Sánchez's officials maintain his position is consistent with support for UN-mediated talks that could involve a referendum on Western Sahara's independence.

The European Union's High Representative on Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, a former foreign minister in Madrid, also backs Sánchez's offer.

'The solution must come from an agreement between the parties within the framework of the UN resolution. This is the European position, and from what I have read in the letter sent by Spain, it does not contradict it,' he said.

This diplomatic two-step by Washington and Brussels points to Algeria's diplomatic heft in energy politics. Its gas supplies have become vital to the EU's plans to end their reliance on Russian gas.

This week, officials in Algiers announced that its ambassador would return to Madrid should Spain give 'frank clarifications' over its stance on Western Sahara. Sánchez's shift in Madrid's position on Western Sahara, announced last month, had broken with established policy since the 1980s.

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