Spain, between Morocco and Algeria
13 de marzo de 2020

The political uncertainty, the absence of government at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, and the oversize of the Catalan independence issue, as well as other socialist-communist priorities of the coalition Executive, have hidden that, beyond the peninsular territory, our sovereignty is also at stake. This way, coinciding with a complicated internal political situation in our country, Morocco and Algeria have reactivated the plans to reinforce their territorial and maritime sovereignty, with two appropriation projects that affect the Spanish waters of the Canary and Balearic Islands.

These manoeuvres, promoted by their respective governments, do not have as a goal a direct confrontation with Spain, considered by both as an ally with which to establish close collaboration and various diplomatic relations. The cause lies in the prolonged conflict that these two rivals have with each other, since the end of the Spanish and French protectorates in Morocco (1956) and the independence of Algeria between 1954 and 1962. Since then, both have carried out a continuous rearmament, which has been accentuated in the last two years.

To this must be added the Moroccan desire to dominate the territory of Western Sahara, which they have claimed for themselves since the interruption of the Spanish decolonisation process and the invasion that they staged on November 6, 1975 with the so-called «Green March». This is a primary objective for Morocco, which largely defines its foreign policy. For this reason, the Alawite monarchy seeks to avoid any conflict with Spain: we are the main mediator between them and the EU. Thus, they carry out a «patient» strategy, by which, through good relations with Europe, sustained in the long term and through Spain, they will try to gradually recognise their sovereignty over the Sahara.

Faced with this situation, our Foreign Minister, Arancha González Laya, visited Morocco on January 24th  and Algeria on March 4th, in order to clarify the territorial claims on the Canary and Balearic coasts, and negotiate the delimitation of the waters, as established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Although it is true that this is not about solving a direct conflict, the demarcations made by these countries cast doubt on the sovereignty of Spain, key to the defence of the rights and freedoms of its citizens. For this reason, although our country maintains good diplomatic relations with Morocco and Algeria, such as the «Treaty of friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation between the Kingdom of Spain and the Algerian Democratic and Popular Republic» (signed in Madrid on October 8, 2002, in force since 2005), it is vital that the territorial limits are respected, and Spain must keep a certain caution in its declarations, but also show an image of firmness in the protection of its maritime spaces.

Morocco had on January 22, unanimously by the House of Representatives, two bills, 37.17 and 38.17, or «Dahir», which set the extent of territorial waters up to 12 maritime miles, and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 miles, and a maximum of 350 with the continental shelf, is established on the coasts of the Sahara. Despite the fact that Minister González Laya specified that said project did not set specific limits, a difference from the Algerian plan, in fact it does. As for his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, he stated that this implies «harmonisation with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)», that is, an attempt to normalise its occupation of the Sahara and to legitimise it internationally In turn, he clarified that «it is not at all intended to unilaterally impose any fait accompli in the area of ​​delimitation of its maritime borders», and «Spain is considered a strategic partner affected by Morocco due to strong political, economic and historical relations». However, we could also say that «Morocco clings to its sovereignty and any dialogue with Spain will take place within the framework of Morocco’s strategic rights.» This issue collides, as we will see, with Spanish sovereignty in the Canary Islands.

Turning now to the question of the Balearic Islands, we must mention that the recently known Algerian decree was already approved in 2018 by the then historical president of this Republic, Abdelaziz Buteflika. It contains a unilateral delimitation by which Algeria expands its EEZ to include waters that correspond to the Spanish EEZ, to the south of the island of Cabrera, with the excuse of making oil and natural gas extractions. González Laya rejected this movement and met in Algiers with Algeria’s foreign minister, Sabri Bukadum, and later with the new president, Abdelmadjid Tebbun, in order to negotiate the territory and avoid overlapping of national waters, according to the Algerian minister. González Laya, for his part, assured that the delimitation of the waters should be negotiated with the adjacent State, in this case Spain (although it also affects Italy), as stipulated in the 1982 Convention on the Rights of the Sea in its article 74 , and in accordance with the provisions of article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, which rejects all kinds of unilateral decisions.

Although the territorial expansion of Algeria is carried out according to its baselines recognized by UNCLOS, and does not involve, as we have said, a direct confrontation with Spain, it is part of the strategic game of «cold war» that it maintains with Morocco, who, as we will see now, does not start from baselines recognized by the UN, but does so from the coasts of the Sahara.

The conflict point in question is located in the south of the Canary Islands, in the area that Spain has been demanding from the UN since 2014, and which would entail an expansion of its EEZ to 350 miles from the continental shelf, characterized by the formation of the mount Tropic submarine and the richness of its tellurium and cobalt waters (for the manufacture of electric cars and solar panels).

Spanish territorial sovereignty cannot be part of the game between two Maghreb countries in continuous rearmament

The absence of a recognized coastal State, as the Sahara should be, allows Spain to reserve the rights to exploit these waters, although the UN has not yet ruled on it or resolved disputes. According to article 74 of the aforementioned Convention, all delimitation must be made by “mutual agreement”. However, this constitutes a unique case in the world. The decolonization process of the Sahara started on November 6, 1975 was interrupted by the Green March that Morocco undertook to occupy the Saharawi territories, so the Madrid tripartite agreement between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania on November 14 of that same year , presented at the United Nations, did not end with the proclamation of the independence of Western Sahara.

This means that Spain continues to be its administering power “in iure”, thus recognized internationally, including by the African Union. However, the administering power «de facto» is Morocco, occupying for more than 40 years the majority of the Saharawi territory, even without the approval of the UN, which declares illegal the perpetuation of said occupation on a territory in the process of decolonisation.

Therefore, due to the absence of a coastal State, Spain could reserve the exploitation rights of this expansion of the EEZ. On the other hand, Morocco does not have the legitimacy to impose its sovereignty to the south of the 24º 40′ parallel, which separates it from the Sahara, since it starts from baselines that do not correspond to it, since it is not a legitimate or recognised administering power.

The background to this whole issue undoubtedly lies in the patient and ambitious Moroccan plan for dominance of Western Sahara. Expansionist strategy that provokes the reaction of its neighbour and rival: Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front in its effort to recover the territories seized by Morocco, and which responds with another delimitation against the Balearic Islands.

But our territorial sovereignty cannot be part of the strategic game between these two Maghreb countries in continuous rearmament. Although, in effect, Morocco and Algeria claim to enjoy good relations with Spain and not want to break them with unilateral acts, our Government must act with caution and, also, with firmness. It cannot let Morocco tighten the rope and set the pace, because, in this way, it will also favour its aspirations over Ceuta, Melilla, or the Chafarinas islands, Spanish territories that the Maghrebi country does not recognize as such.

The defence of our borders cannot consist only of a rejection of those limitations that threaten the sovereignty of Spanish territory. Morocco’s current claim in the Canary Islands constitutes the continuation of an ambitious plan that it hatches with patience, and that takes advantage of Spain’s inactivity in its role as legitimate administrator of the Sahara. Such passivity cannot govern our foreign policy in the Maghreb, since, otherwise, the nearby Spanish territories, or those that are there, will only be pawns in the Algerian-Moroccan «cold war» strategy.

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