NATO’s recent summit in Madrid delivered plenty of rhetorical fodder for optimists, but little substance in the way of guaranteeing Spain that its geopolitical situation will not continue to degrade.
As if on cue, the meeting was prefaced by Morocco’s brutal treatment of persons attempting to illegally cross the border into the Spanish city of Melilla on June 24th, resulting in at least 23 deaths.
On this occasion, it seems the migrants had come from a camp near or in Mount Gourougou, 5 kilometers away from the border area near Melilla. The trek proceeded unencumbered until the 2,000-person strong group arrived at the fences around Melilla. Only at this point did authorities engage with it. This suggests, in the eyes of some analysts, that the Moroccan government wanted the violent suppression of these migrants to enter the international news cycle in order to send a message: namely that Morocco is perfectly capable of securing the border with its northern, NATO-member neighbor. The implications of this message would be that:
- No specific commitment to defend Spain’s African territories need be made by NATO, as some Spanish parties—including VOX—would want because such a commitment is not required in order to properly address the threat of illegal migration.
- Spanish politicians should stay the course in terms of recognizing Moroccan authority over the Western Sahara, because Morocco can always cause trouble on their country’s border.
Indeed, capitulating to Moroccan claims on the Western Sahara was sold as a means to stem its irredentism with respect to Ceuta and Melilla by pro-government journalists in Spain. In the same vein, the NATO summit in Madrid has likewise been presented as a means of securing strong guarantees around Spanish territorial integrity. This was called for, given that Spain’s African cities are not formally included in the 1949 Washington Treaty.
No such explicit mention was secured, however. The symbolism of Spain’s flag being set upside-down in front of Prime Minister Sanchez as he inaugurated the NATO summit was eerily illustrative of his weak position. Indeed, the exact same thing happened recently during his visit to Morocco.
For his part, Sanchez glossed over the issue of Ceuta and Melilla, stating that “every centimeter of the countries belonging to NATO will be defended. I think that this says it all. Ceuta and Melilla are Spain.” For his part, NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said that “NATO is there to protect all allies against any threats. At the end of the day, there will always be a political decision to invoke Article 5.”
The latter, however true, is oddly—and inappropriately—equivocal. It would seem to be out of place, assuming the political will at the heart of NATO were clear on its interests being aligned with a comprehensive defense of Spanish sovereignty. It is also somewhat embarrassing to a host government whose political capital requires that the organization it has invited into the nation’s capital display at least rhetorical solidarity with its interests.
All the same, it would be extremely surprising if a military deployment against Ceuta or Melilla were launched by Morocco, certainly in the foreseeable future. What is more worrying is the unwillingness on the part of the Moroccan government, the U.S., and NATO, to resolve this issue clearly and unambiguously. Equivocation, however subtle, signals that Spain is considered a secondary or tertiary ally. More importantly, at least in immediate terms, it does nothing to change the bargaining positions of Spain and Morocco. The latter continues to treat the integrity of Ceuta and Melilla and its own role in securing their borders (or overwhelming them with illegal migration) as a largely discretional factor, subject to whether it wants to extract concessions from Spain or not. NATO could have helped close that chapter and stabilize Spanish-Moroccan relations.
Of course, Morocco is an important strategic ally to the U.S., which is helping to build it up militarily. We may speculate that there is some interest on the part of certain countries in strengthening Moroccan King Mohammad VI’s hand by granting his country sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Such a move extends the Moroccan maritime border closer to the Canary Islands, giving Morocco access to those rare earth minerals and other resources which we now know lie beneath that area’s seabed. Insofar as Spain has to contend with the issue of Ceuta and Melilla, it may need to concede in this area.
We may consider what is gained by NATO’s apparent ambivalence.
By sharing in the exploitation of rare earth minerals, Morocco will grow stronger, balance Algerian influence in the region and, therefore, push Russian interests out (Algeria being aligned with Russia), which could also weaken the Russian hand in Libya, a country of strategic and energetic importance. This also ensures that no country (specifically, Spain) can exert excessive power over the strategically-critical western entry-point into the Mediterranean Sea. A stronger Morocco balances Spanish influence, and the continued presence of the UK in Gibraltar provides further balance, as well as a clearly pro-U.S. presence.
In addition, and, again, very speculatively, to the degree that Spain is not able to fully benefit from the resource-richness corresponding to its southern territories, it will not upset the economic power-balance within Europe; it will stay a second-rate member of the EU, and remain inert in terms of forging natural alliances with Spanish-speaking countries in the western hemisphere (an area the U.S. has historically considered its sphere of influence). Indeed, it may be that Spain’s allies are more or less unanimous in seeing no benefit to having this country increase its (regional or global) capacities.
The Spanish political class is largely going along with the weakening of the country’s already relatively weak position. Such a stance requires the whitewashing of Morocco’s aggressive approach to pursuing its regional interests against those of Spain. This whitewashing relies on turning Algeria, long time rival of Morocco, into a scapegoat. The recent arrival of a few dinghies of illegal migrants to the southeastern Spanish province of Almeria, for example, has been blamed on Algerian complacency.
It has been reported that Spain’s National Intelligence Center (the CNI) has warned the government that Algeria may send as much as 10,000 illegal migrants to Spanish coasts as retaliation for Spain’s rapprochement with Morocco. Leaving aside the arbitrariness of this number, it is possible that Algeria will catch on to the political utility of migration as a political bargaining chip. The Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean would effectively take the place of the Canary Islands as a major point of ingress for unregulated African migration.
Over the past year, Spanish-Algerian relations have deteriorated significantly on account of Spain’s abandonment of its historic position vis Western Saharan self-determination (Algeria, of course, opposes any Moroccan influence over the Western Sahara). The result is that, at a time when Spain should be gaining in strategic importance (because Europe’s energy infrastructure is set to shift away from eastern Europe on account of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine), Algerian oil and gas will not be flowing to the Iberian peninsula, or will do so at a reduced rate, being contracted instead by Italy.
The scapegoating of Algeria is unfair when that country’s record is compared to the callous use of migrants by Morocco’s Mohamad VI (in this context, I will draw on the research of Ruben Pulido, who provides frequent analysis of this developing situation). Despite the role of Spanish (and generally European) lax migration policies in magnetizing the irregular movement of peoples from sub-Saharan Africa through Algeria, the latter country has generally worked to stem this flow. Given that the areas from which migrants who cross Algeria to get to Europe are considered high-risk for Islamist (violent Salafist) radicalization, Algerian authorities have also been consistent in identifying and targeting support for Jund al-Khilafah (JAK), the major group of this kind operating in the region.
Illegal migration routes to Spain via Algeria rely on Spanish authorities or NGOs picking up migrant vessels off the European coast. Human trafficking organizations know they only need to get their wards part of the way, and after a certain point, are no longer incumbered by having to avoid detection. Ruben Pulido has pointed out that, despite the fact that Spain’s policies serve to attract illegal immigrants, and despite the limited resources available to the Algerian Coast Guard (up to 12 ships), Algeria has frequently acted quite decisively and intercepted illegal crossings of the Mediterranean. There have even been occasions in which the Algerian Coast Guard had already been deployed, but Spain sent ships to pick up illegal migrants and bring them to the Spanish coast all the same.
Of course, Algeria might use migration as a weapon, but we should recognize the degree to which it has traditionally been a good partner to Spain, and may now justifiably consider itself to have been betrayed by Spain. We should also recognize that Spain’s National Intelligence Center can be leveraged as a political instrument by the political class to justify Spain’s acquiescence to Moroccan interests. This class is shifting the blame for illegal migration from Morocco to Algeria.
Scapegoating Algeria, however, would be a very short-term, more or less reactive move on the part of Spanish political and intelligence operatives, given that, in the meantime, Spain is likely to need Algerian energy, and so will have to play at being a more balanced actor between Morocco and Algeria (which is the position the current Spanish government has claimed for itself, albeit its actions have clearly alienated Algeria).
There is, now, an increased awareness of the dire geopolitical straits in which Spain finds herself, and a certain rising climate of dissidence with respect to how it is being handled. It now remains to be seen whether this dissidence, spearheaded by VOX or not, can make its case to the Spanish public, enter government, and begin the arduous task of forging a sensible diplomatic position and more beneficial alliances.