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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 27th May 2021

Rabat challenges Madrid on migration

Blue Lines

Morocco's decision to open its usually tight border controls in mid-May, allowing thousands of migrants into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, showed two important things: how African states can weaponise migration in their dealings with Europe and the double-edged sword of Rabat's policy on Western Sahara.

Rabat was retaliating, in part, against Spain's admission of Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, to hospital for treatment of Covid–19. Madrid insists it was doing so on humanitarian grounds, not to signal political support. Spain has been a strong ally of Rabat within the EU. There are no signs that Madrid is reconsidering those ties for now. But its panicked reaction, sending in 3,000 troops from its garrison in Ceuta, told its own story.

It seems that former United States President Donald Trump's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has emboldened King Mohammed VI. Yet Rabat's tactics could still backfire.

There are many in Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialist Party who take a much more critical view of Morocco's Western Sahara policy. Spain is also a major importer of gas from Algeria, the leading backer of Polisario. Spanish critics of Rabat are not alone in the EU. Germany's Green Party is openly hostile to Rabat on Western Sahara and could play a leading role in government after the next elections.