Transatlantic relations
International 13/06/2021

Biden and Sánchez to meet for first time in midst of Spain-Morocco crisis

The two presidents, who have not yet spoken to each other, will meet in Brussels at the NATO summit

4 min
Joe Biden arrives for press conference at end of G7 summit

Madrid / BarcelonaThe Spanish President, Pedro Sánchez, will have a brief meeting with the American President, Joe Biden, this Monday in Brussels, at the NATO summit. It will be the first contact between the two, much awaited by the Moncloa, which had already received criticism from the PP for losing international space. The Democrat has been in the White House since 20 January and so far had not found time to talk to Madrid. Sánchez's chief of staff, Ivan Redondo, contacted his American counterpart, Ronald Klain, on 7 June to arrange the meeting, which only became known when Biden had already begun his European tour, which has started in the United Kingdom.

The meeting will be marked by the diplomatic crisis opened between Spain and Morocco, which had as a pretext the transfer of Brahim Ghali to a hospital in Logroño for covid-19 treatment, but which Rabat has made clear is a response to Madrid's refusal to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. After losing the American elections, one of Donald Trump's last diplomatic decisions was to recognise the Moroccan sovereignty of the former Spanish colony in exchange for Morocco regaining diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel. This gave courage to Rabat, which was expecting an avalanche of international recognition, but the reality is that nothing has changed on the ground and Biden has not endorsed his predecessor's change, which contravenes international law and the UN commitment to organise a referendum of self-determination for the Saharawis.

Morocco wanted to take advantage of Washington's change of position to put pressure on Spain (as well as Germany, from where it has also withdrawn its ambassador) to take the step, but Madrid is a party involved in the conflict and also wants to have its cards to negotiate with. At the same time, Rabat had hoped that the departure of Pablo Iglesias from the government of Pedro Sánchez would facilitate an understanding, which has not happened either: just yesterday at the Podemos congress, the Polisario representative in Spain, Adulah Arabi, demanded the referendum and received an ovation, also from Ione Belarra, who is already the new secretary general of the party. Without many alternatives, Rabat tried to force things with the Ceuta migration crisis last month, but the move backfired, especially because families in the north of the country, where living conditions have been further degraded by the restrictions of the pandemic, have seen Mohamed VI use their children as cannon fodder in his diplomatic bickering.

Spain and Morocco, allies of Washington

The United States has always seen Morocco as a strategic ally due to its position as a gateway to Africa and also in the fight against terrorism. That is why in the midst of the Ceuta crisis, on 18 May, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke to the Alawi foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, to recognise its "key" role in the stability of the region. It is another matter, however, whether Washington is prepared to back Rabat against Spain, a strategic ally and home to NATO bases, and to come up against Algeria, which has its own internal problems and hosts the Saharawi refugee camps, in order to weaken its great regional rival. Just this week US diplomacy has said it "has deep differences" with the Trump administration on the issue, but has thrown balls out of the court by assuring that both Morocco and Spain are "partners", with whom they are talking. On the ground, Morocco has seen how the joint African Lion military maneuvers with the United States, which took place last week, did not set foot on Saharawi territory as Rabat had proclaimed.

The Spanish President avoided on Friday evening, during a press conference from Costa Rica - in the framework of a tour of Latin America -, to say whether he would raise the crisis with Morocco at the meeting, to whom he made it clear that "the borders of Spain are also those of Europe". Although journalists asked him about the matter, he dissociated this issue from the bilateral and focused on praising the Biden administration's turnaround in the fight against climate change, as well as its progressive agenda in economic terms. From the Moncloa they admit that the issue of "migration" can be addressed, but point out at all times that this "will depend on the two leaders".

For practical purposes, Sánchez is mainly looking for a photograph of complicity with Biden - the Spanish government has already made it clear that there will be complicity - detached from the snubs of former US President Donald Trump. The Spanish president never held a bilateral meeting with the former U.S. president and the only time they could be seen together and Sánchez wanted to greet him and talk, in the framework of the G-20 plenary, Trump quickly pointed out the seat that Spain had reserved as a special guest at the summit. On Friday Sánchez praised the figure of Biden in contrast to Trump and valued that "in a short time he has become a world reference repairing much of the confrontation and fracture" caused by the assault on the Capitol in Washington. "The Biden administration has managed to bring the United States back to the great consensuses. The meeting will be an opportunity to meet and strengthen positive ties", he added from Costa Rica.

The meeting is a coup for Pedro Sánchez, who in return has agreed to unfreeze the hosting in Spain of the NATO strategic summit postponed in 2019 and scheduled for 2022. Mariano Rajoy's government agreed to it before the no-confidence vote and Sánchez decided to cancel it because it was an election year. Now in 2022 Spain would take the opportunity to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its accession to the Atlantic Alliance.

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