Bourita’s Hostility Towards Sanchez: Trouble in Paradise

  • Pedro Sanchez harbors and then releases the enemy of an ally 
  • 8,000 people enter Spain in what looks like an intimidation campaign
  • Sanchez struggles to maintain peace domestically and internationally
Source: Reuters

Why is Bourita Hostile towards Sanchez? 

Answer: Because loyalty seldom works without reciprocity. 

The unusual influx of people that the Spanish enclave of Ceuta received late last month was not a consequence of domestic turmoil but of international relations. 

In late April, Moroccan intelligence revealed that Brahim Ghali, leader of Western Sahara’s independence movement Polisario Front, was receiving medical attention in Spain. Moroccan Foreign Minister Naser Bourita responded to the news of Ghali’s location by asking Sanchez whether they were willing to sacrifice relations with Morocco by not informing them of Ghali’s presence in Spain. Morocco’s ambassador in Madrid claimed this was undermining territorial integrity, something Rabat would respond to accordingly. 

Days after, thousands of migrants entered the enclave of Ceuta, unopposed by Morrocan border authorities and setting off alarms all over the EU of a possible humanitarian crisis. Sanchez called the events of May an act of defiance and disrespect from Morocco towards Spain and the European Union. He stated that Spain believes the border relaxation was direct retaliation for allowing Ghali into Spanish territory, although Rabat denied the connection. Spain claimed that Ghali entered under a false name through Algeria, which was later disproved. Ghali entered Spain with a diplomatic passport in an Algerian plane, an alliance that further infuriated Bourita.  

Bourita’s hostility stems from his knowledge of the secrecy behind Ghali’s arrival. However, this was exacerbated by the Spanish National Court’s apprehension to address the court summons for war crimes and human rights violations Ghali has in Spain. More than a month after Ghali entered Spain, and merely weeks after the story broke the news, the Spanish National Court finally summoned Ghali on June 1st. Nevertheless, the Spanish High Court rejected provisional prison or the removal of Ghali’s passport, but asked for an address and a phone number to localize him. On June 1st, Ghali declared through a video-conference that he had not been formally accused of either of the crimes and that the court declared the plaintiffs had insufficient evidence of the crimes Ghali was accused of. Brahim Ghali left Spain the day after. 

Aided by President Donald Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara as a Moroccan territory, Bourita is experiencing an unprecedented power high. The now frozen relations with Berlin after Germany took to the UN Security Council Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan, are further proof that Bourita’s new attitude towards his allies is all or nothing, even if the outcome is unfavorable for Morocco. Through the events in Ceuta, Bourita sent a clear message to Spain and the European Union: You need me as much as I need you. Unlike the case of Germany, in Spain Bourita holds a similar power than Erdogan in the East; the ability to weaponize immigration. This is but a demonstration of a new weapon, a way to remind Spain and the European Union that they are free to undermine Morocco and its demands but not without suffering the consequences. 

What does Bourita want?

Answer: To be treated like an equal, no matter what it takes. 

Last year, Trump recognized Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara in exchange for King Mohhamed VI’s recognition of Israel, breaking away from the general consensus of Western countries. This provided an opportunity that had long been extinguished. The recognition reignited a fight for Western Sahara that was thought of as impossible.

More importantly, Moroccan Foreign Minister -Naser Bourita- sees Spanish meddling as disrespectful and out of place. Even with its territorial disputes in place, Morocco rejected any contact with Spanish separatist groups in the past and informed their allies of every contact they made, even asking for Spanish mediators when they did meet. 

Bourita saw Spain’s behavior as a way to set a precedent on how to handle diplomatic relations on the matter.  After Germany raised the subject of Western Sahara’s sovereignty with the U.N. Security Council, it seemed like Bourita had chosen Germany to express its distaste with the European Union and ended its relations with Germany by recalling its ambassador in Berlin and ceasing communications with the German embassy in Morocco. However, the presence of Brahim Ghali in Spain made him realize that a relationship with Europe will always be asymmetric, no matter how well he followed or catered to the Europeans’ rules. 

The response to Sanchez’s operation to medically treat Ghali, shows that Bourita understands Sanchez and the EU to a higher degree than they understand Rabat. Bourita is willing to sacrifice how Morocco is currently perceived internationally if it gets the attention of those he wants. In a way, Bourita saw Spain distancing itself from the territorial dispute, similar to Germany, in order to continue reaping the benefits of trade, terrorism mitigation and immigration control that Morocco offers. However, unlike the case of Germany where freezing relations hurt Morocco more than it hurt Germany, Bourita found a vulnerable point for Spain, its border control. The Foreign Minister’s response to the situation shows that no matter how hard the EU worked to intimidate and demonize Erdogan’s weaponization of immigration, it is a more attractive prospect and pressure point than any kind of soft power they exerted before. 

What does Sanchez want? 

Answer: To keep those at home happy, whether it is Spain or the EU.

Focusing solely on Sanchez to explain what he wants would entail minimizing the issue. The wants and needs of bigger players, like the European Union, are the ones we should look towards to explain Sanchez’s behaviour. In fact, both the president and vice-president of the European Commission were quick to show that the EU was paying close attention to the matter and that they were siding with Spain, despite humanitarian concerns. While European Commission’s president -Ursula von der Leyen- sent a message of peace and support, Vice president Margaritis Schinas, who spoke later, issued a warning: “Nobody can intimidate or blackmail the European Union. Ceuta is Europe, this border is a European border and what happens there is not a problem for Madrid, but a problem for all.”

These warnings were directed at Bourita, but they also sound directed at Sanchez, telling him to clean up the mess before it got bigger. Spain has rejected the presence of a European border control force numerous times in the past, but the short-lived crisis in Ceuta was a European crisis, not just a Spanish one. There is no doubt that Sanchez wants to remain on the good side of the European Union, thus, the increasing mentions of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard agency, are not unexpected. Internationally, it looks like Sanchez finally caved under the pressure from the EU. Domestically, it shows a more serious and solely European approach to immigration. It doesn’t seem like Bourita expected this from Spain, as in the past few years Morocco had become a key figure in the border control of the southernmost point of the European Union. 

Furthermore, domestically, the events of May added more fuel to a fire Sanchez has been dealing with since 2018. Sanchez seeks to maintain power, but parties like VOX -notorious for its anti-immigration stance- only grow stronger every time Spain deals with a wave of “irregular” immigration.

The situation in Ceuta sent Sanchez to scramble. While he dealt with the EU, Morocco, Algeria, Western Sahara and the parliament, the president of VOX visited Ceuta to denounce the situation and spread the word about VOX’s approach to immigration. 

What is Sanchez doing?

Answer: Trying to clean up the mess.

Sanchez’s main goal is to keep the EU happy, and they’re not pleased when their external border is once again threatened, especially in times where leaders like Erdogan already weaponize their ability to destabilize the Union with refugees. As a result of Sanchez’s scramble for normality, Spain is now being accused of summary deportations by violating refugee agreements that include Spain conducting thorough background checks of those who enter into Spanish territory. 

Sanchez’s meeting with president Joe Biden in the NATO Summit of June 14th, was predicted to be about cooling American support for Morocco. In reality, the topics discussed included everything but Morocco, a mutual ally. This points to Biden having no intention to change America’s stance over who owns Western Sahara, which leaves Sanchez in an uncomfortable position.

The Spanish Prime Minister is reviving the prospect of Frontex patrolling Spanish borders. Spain has historically rejected the agency, but the topic is already salient after last year more than 20.000 migrants reached the Canary islands. To help manage the crisis, Frontex intervened, but tensions between Spanish forces and Frontex almost led to it abandoning the country earlier this year.  However, the presence of Frontex in Ceuta would serve as a physical manner to emphasize the presence of a European, not just Spanish, border. 

The presence of Frontex in Spain is being considered by high officials and encouraged by the European Union, but Spanish security forces maintain that they would prefer to not have foreigners controlling Spain’s borders. Most of the disputes between foreign and national agents have been over the amount of power, presence and access to information each has, which will be a challenging but necessary negotiation for Sanchez if he wishes to simultaneously appease the European Union and the citizens of Ceuta. 

Who is winning and what about you? 

Answer: The European Union 

While Nasser Bourita struggles with the loss of key partnerships with Germany and Spain, and while Pedro Sanchez juggles domestic tensions, Human Rights violation concerns and a historically unpopular operation, the European Union is thriving. 

A European presence at the southernmost border of the Union means more influence, more access to Spanish intelligence and overall more control over what happens at the border and who gets to enter its boundaries. The presence of Frontex in Spain is something Brussels has pressed for for years. In addition, this gives the European Union the opportunity to refrain from making a unified stance on Western Sahara’s status in relation to Morocco, something that was expected to change after Trump broke the consensus over Western Sahara. As the focus shifted in late may from a matter of sovereignty and ally-ship to a matter of border security for the European Union, Bourita’s weaponization of immigration suddenly became more important than a diplomatic statement. This is important given that a unified statement regarding Western Sahara is something the Union never did, and it allowed them to maintain good relations with Rabat while trading Saharawi products through Morocco without implied recognition

For you, this means stronger and more unified border controls for the European Union and a stronger Union as a whole. Bourita believed that US recognition was enough to make Germany stumble or maybe even comment on its stance of Western Sahara and Morocco. Nobody expected him to weaponize immigration against a long-term ally. But, amidst it all, the EU offered Spain an alternative that would shift border controls from Spain and Morocco to the European Union, eliminating the need for Morocco and Spain to remain on good terms and relieving the EU of an uncomfortable position. 

Another important factor to come out of this is the weaponization of immigration and the effect it has on domestic politics. What happened in Ceuta is not the first nor will it be the last time the EU deals with the weaponization of immigration. More importantly, these attacks have an outstanding effect on domestic politics. 

The rise of VOX and their swift appearance in Ceuta is another step forward in their anti-immigration campaign. The party first brought the proposal for an impenetrable wall at the border of both Melilla and Ceuta in 2019 and the party’s leader recently called for the proposal to be revised. Far-right populist parties are not uncommon and situations like these continue to make them more attractive for the general public, especially as conflict continues to escalate between Spaniards and immigrants. If Spain and the European Union do not get border protection under control soon, we shall expect far-right anti-immigration parties like these to gain further traction in the political scenes of Spain and its neighbors.