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Spain Calls for UN-brokered Solution to Western Sahara Dispute

FILE - Protesters in Madrid, Spain, take part in a demonstration in support of Western Sahara's independence.

Spain is pushing for a U.N.-brokered solution to the long-running dispute over its former colony, Western Sahara, after a dispute erupted between Morocco and Germany over the territory.

The dispute between Morocco and Germany started earlier this month after Berlin criticized a decision last year by then-U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize Rabat’s claim to sovereignty over the desert region.

The German and EU flags on the German embassy building in Rabat, Morocco, March 2, 2021. Morocco's Foreign Ministry has suspended ties with the German Embassy because of unspecified "deep misunderstandings."
The German and EU flags on the German embassy building in Rabat, Morocco, March 2, 2021. Morocco's Foreign Ministry has suspended ties with the German Embassy because of unspecified "deep misunderstandings."

After losing the U.S. presidential election, Trump broke with decades of U.S. diplomatic tradition in December and recognized Morocco's right to sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Rabat normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Spain, which ruled Western Sahara as a province until 1976, sought to distance itself from the diplomatic fracas as it is conscious of the possible effect this could have on trade and security relations between the close neighbors, experts said.

“Spain maintains a firm and constant position which is supporting the search for a solution that must be political, fair, durable and mutually acceptable as established by the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya in a statement.

“It is not for Spain to promote a concrete solution but to support the efforts of the UN to reach a mutually acceptable solution for the parties. "

No compromises

Morocco firmly states its claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara is non-negotiable, despite rival claims by the pro-independence Polisario Front, which fought a long war with Rabat between 1976 and 1991.

A ceasefire deal in 1991 was meant to lead to a referendum on self-determination in the desert region which is home to approximately one million people.

However, despite efforts to broker a deal by the United Nations, talks ground to a halt in 2019.

Trump's gesture over Western Sahara was supposed to ensure that Israel was recognized by a moderate Arab state outside of the Gulf.

U.S. President Joe Biden is now left with a diplomatic conundrum: should he use it to help broker a peace deal for the long-running dispute of Western Sahara?

The U.S. decision to back Morocco's sovereignty claim was criticized by Germany, which called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council when Germany was still a member in December.

Morocco retorted by announcing it halted dealings with the German embassy and German cultural organizations in Rabat after disagreements over a series of issues including the status of the Western Sahara.

Berlin hit back by calling in the Moroccan ambassador in Berlin for “urgent talks.”

“Morocco was emboldened by the U.S .decision which was a diplomatic coup but it was also nervous as Trump made the move as he was leaving office and Biden could possibly reverse it or modify the term's of Trump's move,” said Haizam Amirah-Fernández, a senior analyst for the Mediterranean and Arab World at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank.

“The row with Germany was a sign from Morocco to European countries of what it will cost them if they criticize the U.S. recognition or push to reverse it,” he said.

Amirah-Fernández believes the Trump initiative may allow President Biden to push Morocco and the Polisario Front to find a solution to the conflict.

“Paradoxically, the decision of Trump could open up a way for President Biden to press Morocco and the pro-independence Saharawis to find a negotiated solution," he said.

Fish, Tomatoes, and Melons

The diplomatic dispute came as the European Court of Justice, ECJ, last week heard submissions over the Morocco-EU trade agreement relating to Western Sahara which is opposed by the Polisario Front.

Gilles Devers, a lawyer who represents the Polisario Front, claims Moroccan exports from the disputed territory to Europe amount to “looting of its natural resources”.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told the state MAP news agency that Rabat would repel what he called this “judicial harassment” and defend the kingdom's partnership with Europe.

In 2019, Rabat exported $516 million worth of fish, tomatoes, and melons from Western Sahara to Europe, according to European Commission figures.

In 2018, the court ruled that an EU-Moroccan fishing agreement did not apply to Western Sahara since the consent of the Saharawis who live there had not been obtained for fishing in waters off the disputed territory.

After the last ECJ ruling, the European Parliament dispatched a fact-finding mission to consult with Saharawi groups that were approved by Morocco.

Brussels asserted that this met the ECJ's demands for the Saharawis to be consulted and allowed Europe to exploit Western Sahara's resources without officially recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

“Should the court rule against Morocco, it will create a fresh crisis in relations between Rabat and Europe,” Ignacio Cembrero, a Spanish journalist and author who writes about Morocco, told VOA.