Algerian-Spanish relations are witnessing an unprecedented tensions on the diplomatic, political, and economic fronts as a result of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s decision, on 8 June to suspend the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation, signed in Madrid in 2002, as well as to cease imports and exports to and from Spain.
The tensions come in light of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s announcement of support for the autonomy initiative adopted by Morocco regarding the Western Sahara issue. This support was the first ever of its kind, where Madrid used to support United Nations resolutions regarding this issue, which support the right of self-determination of the Sahrawi people.
These decisions and escalations indicate the centrality of the Western Sahara issue in the Algerian foreign policy agenda, particularly since Algeria withdrew its ambassador from Madrid for consultation against the background of Spain’s tacit declaration of support for the autonomy proposal in March 2022, demonstrating the escalating tension between the two countries.
Different Contexts and Motives
Algeria’s decision to suspend the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation with Spain as well as the announcement by the Algerian Banking Association of the prohibition of imports from Spain is based on the following reasons:
- Changes in the balance of power in the Western Sahara file: The Western Sahara file has been witnessing an accumulation of strategic changes since the American announcement, during the period of Donald Trump’s presidency, of its recognition of the Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, in exchange for the resumption of the Moroccan-Israeli relations. Additionally, this was followed by various acknowledgments from regional and European powers, Germany and Spain being at the forefront in the latter. This results in reduced opportunities for Algerian support in this file, as well as the reversal of previous UN resolutions regarding this issue. This is in addition to Moroccan attempts to include Western Sahara in military exercises known as the “African Lion” of the year 2022, with the participation of many African countries, under the leadership of the United States of America.
- Finding Alternatives: The Spanish decision came in the wake of Madrid being assured of access to African gas through the Moroccan gate. Elaborating, this will be through the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline, in light of the Nigerian government’s ratification, on June 6th, 2022, of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s entry into an agreement with the Economic Community of West African States, CEDEAO, to build this line. This in particular reduces the gas file as an Algerian pressure card.
- Applying Pressure: The Spanish decision and previous similar decisions by Germany regarding the recognition of the Moroccan proposal for the Western Sahara file may represent pressure on Algeria, especially in light of its growing closeness with Russia, and represents one of the tactics of changing policies without lacking strategic partners in the region and its representatives in Morocco.
- The Return of Moroccan-Spanish Relations and Dissolving Related Issues: The current development of Spain’s position regarding the Western Sahara issue, may be due to the return of the bilateral relations with Morocco, the reopening of common borders on one side, and on the other is the Spanish desire to introduce the maritime boundary demarcation file and end it. Moreover, this is highlighted in the announcement by both countries that talks and negotiations regarding regional waters and the demarcation of maritime borders have begun. Thus, it could be said that the change in position resulted from common trade-offs and political understandings on the qualitative issue in both Rabat and Madrid.
The mutual political escalation between Algeria and Spain and the European circumvention to support Madrid’s position and put pressure on Algeria to renounce the decision to suspend the implementation of the common agreement between both sides have political, economic, and security dimensions and implications, which can be explained as follows:
- Using Gas as a Pressing Weapon: Despite Algeria’s failure to stop its gas supply to Spain, due to the contract signed with the state-owned Sonatrach company, many reports indicate that it’s likely that the company will review the supply prices included in the contracts, especially since it’s less than current prices of gas. Furthermore, gas will likely be one of the tools used to manage the crisis with Madrid, especially since it’s a good pressure mechanism in Europe in the wake of the state of the Western rift with Russia. The Spanish dependency, which surpasses 90 percent of its energy needs, comes from Algeria with 8 billion cubic metres through the offshore gas pipeline, which enhances the usefulness of this card at the price review level, not the complete halt of the export of gas. This is because Madrid has the right to resort to international arbitration in the event that the decision to suspend gas export is taken, as announced by Teresa Ribera, Minister for the Energy and the Ecological Transition of Spain, which may cause Algeria to handle substantial financial compensations.
- Illegal Migration and Security Disturbances: One of the files that will be affected by the mutual escalation decision between both sides is the illegal migration file, especially in light of the suspension of the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation which regulated security files and migration issues. Moreover, this opens up a wide flow of illegal immigrants as one of the Algerian pressure cards on Spain. This was highlighted in the threatening Algerian officials at the beginning of the crisis ( April 28th. 2022) and Ammar Belany, assistant of the Minister of Foreign Affairs assigned to the file of the Sahara and the Maghreb, hinting at the bearing of the consequences resulting from the changes in the situation.
- The Escalation of Unconventional Military Violence in the Sahara: One of the most significant repercussions of this change was the escalation in violence in Western Sahara between the Polisario Front and the Royal Moroccan forces, which was highlighted in the clear threat made by the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali, to expand the battle area at the beginning of 2022. Additionally, this was followed by Mohamed Al-Wali Akeik, leader of the Sahrawi military, threatening, on May 23rd, 2022, to send thousands of young people to carry out military operations in Sahara cities and to move the war into Moroccan areas. This ultimately leads to a state of instability and the deterioration of the security conditions in Western Sahara. Furthermore, one of the repercussions is the decline of the relative weight that the Western Sahara file carries, where Spain is the territory’s former colonial power and the change in its position means the decline in the positions that support illiterate decisions regarding the right to self-determination. This will significantly affect states supporting the issue, where they will renounce their positions and therefore support Morocco’s autonomy proposal.
- Double Suffering: Algeria’s decision to suspend imports from Spain will incur for both sides substantial economic losses, especially in light of the high rates of trade. Furthermore, Spanish exports to Algeria reached around $2.107 billion in 2020, with imports reaching $2.762 million. In the case of threatening to use the gas card, the damage will be mutual, due to Algeria’s dependence on gas revenues from Spain to treat the internal economic conditions. As for Spain, which imports around 92% of all gas imports, it will witness an energy crisis, especially due to the prolonged effects of the Russian-Ukrainian war.
- European diplomatic isolation and search for alternatives: Other repercussions to the Algerian-Spanish escalation step include Algeria’s partial/relative isolation on the European Union level, especially in light of Brussels’ entry into the crisis line, its concern about Algeria’s decisions, and its support to Madrid. This led to a great alert of the widening of the turbulence and rift in the Algerian-European relations in general, especially since the Algerian-German relations are already in turmoil against the background of Berlin supporting the Moroccan initiative. On another level, Algeria has taken a new cooperation path with Italy as one of the vital alternatives to Spain and Germany, either as a commercial market or as an importer of Algerian gas. Furthermore, this was reflected in the current discussion between both sides to reactivate the project of electricity linkage through submarine cables from Algeria (Chefia) and Italy (Sardinia), with a capacity reaching around 2000 megawatts. In addition, on 11 April 2022, Algeria increased its gas supply to Italy to around 9 billion cubic metres per year, this represents a double gain for Algeria, where it’s trying to disengage from traditional powers (Spain, France, and Germany) and is looking for new European partnerships. As for Italy, it will be the largest European winner amid the escalating crisis between Algeria and Spain, especially in the energy and electricity sector.
- Containing the Crisis: In the framework of the geostrategic importance for Algeria in the Mediterranean Sea and its role in addressing the issue of illegal migration in cooperation with neighbouring European countries, and in the framework of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the aggravation of the global energy equation and the severe impact on the energy sector in European countries amid this crisis, Brussels will be pushed to play the role of the mediator to find diplomatic channels to find a solution to this crisis. Additionally, Spain’s refusal to participate in the “African Lion” exercises for the second consecutive year signals Spain’s desire to find a balance between its relationship with Algeria and Morocco and not harm its strategic interests. Additionally, the geographical proximity and the common security interests, especially with regard to the file of illegal migration and the unwillingness of European countries to put its southern front under more pressure through migration flows amid security and military pressure on the Eastern fronts in light of the Russian-Ukrainian war; in addition to Algeria providing reassurance of the continuity and non-cessation of the low of gas to Spain, as stated by the Algerian mission in Spain, will help calm the crisis in the near future.
- Mutual escalation: Algeria’s decision to freeze trade with Spain has had multiple consequences, and it was followed by escalatory decisions taken by the Spanish side, represented in the Spanish government’s complaint to the European Union against Algeria regarding its recent actions, as highlighted in the visit of the Spanish Foreign Minister, Manuel Albares, to Brussels and his discussion with the Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for trade policy in the Union. This is in addition to the intention of the Algerian company, Sonatrach, to review gas prices in its supply contracts with Spain, alongside a Spanish move to engage alone, or under the European Union umbrella to support the gas pipeline between Nigeria and Morocco, as mentioned above. In addition, there’s a lack of European initiative and mediation to solve this dispute, which was evident in the clear rapprochement between Algeria and Italy, as noted above, France’s adoption of a disassociation policy regarding the current rift in the Algerian-Spanish relations, as well as Paris quickly communicating with Algeria via the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Catherine Colonna and the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramtane Lamamra, on 14 June 2022, to ensure the durability of the Algerian-French relations and to revitalise those relations in many fields.
The aforementioned majorly warns of the escalation of the pace of the crisis at the foreseeable level, which affects the regional security in the area and decreases Algeria’s efforts to monitor illegal migration, which decreased during the first period of 2022 by 35 percent. Additionally, it warns that there might be a state of polarisation, North African and European regional attraction, as well as indirect emergence of interlocutors’ policy including Morocco, Spain, and Germany on one side and Algeria, France, and Italy on the other.
In the end, the escalatory actions adopted by Algeria to address the Western Sahara issue, in particular towards the European countries that have changed their positions, directly or implicitly supporting the autonomy initiative proposed by Rabat demonstrates the extent of space that Algeria allocates to this issue to its foreign policy, as well as the extent of the Algerian commitment to the necessity of self-determination for the Algerian people in the context of the regional competition with Morocco in the Maghreb region. Additionally, this may have a geopolitical cost in the context of regional balances within the region, and Algeria will bear the dimensions of this escalation, especially in light of the decline in support and the momentum that the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as well as the Polisario Front received from European countries on one hand, and on the other, the Algerian-European mobility and interaction will decrease.