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What’s behind the Morocco-Germany diplomatic dispute?

A Saharawi woman walks in the desert near the Western Sahara village of Tifariti [AFP]

What’s behind the Morocco-Germany diplomatic dispute?

Amid a diplomatic dispute between Morocco and Germany, widely understood to be right down to differences over the disputed territory of Western Sahara , Spain, which ruled the desert region as a colony until 1975, has said it might seek a UN-negotiated solution.

Morocco suspended contact with the German embassy and German cultural organisations within the North African country last Monday, prompting tit-for-tat moves from Germany.

Spanish secretary of state Arancha Gonzalez Laya said Madrid would believe the UN to broker an agreement between each side .

“Spain maintains a firm and constant position which is supporting the look for an answer that has got to be political, fair, durable and mutually acceptable as established by the resolutions of the UN Security Council ,” she said during a statement.

“It isn’t for Spain to market a concrete solution but to support the efforts of the UN to succeed in a mutually acceptable solution for the parties.”

Rabat announced its moves last week citing “deep misunderstandings” on “issues fundamental for Morocco”.

Some analysts believe the measures are an effort by the North African state to form a stand over its claim to the sovereignty of disputed Western Sahara .

Also last week, the ecu Court of Justice – as previously scheduled – heard submissions over the Morocco-European Union trade agreement which are disputed by the Polisario Front, which fights for the independence of Western Sahara .

In Rabat, anger is brewing over Germany’s criticism of former US President Donald Trump’s decision in January this year to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara .

Trump broke with decades folks diplomatic tradition to recognise the Moroccan claim to the disputed territory reciprocally for Rabat normalising relations with Israel.

At that point , Morocco was already feeling snubbed by Germany, which had did not invite Moroccan officials to a congress in Berlin in January 2020 to debate Libya’s future.

“This row with Germany is an effort by Morocco to pressure the ecu Union, and especially Spain as a former colonial power, to adopt their claim over Western Sahara ,” Ignacio Cembrero, a Madrid-based journalist and author who has written extensively about Morocco, told Al Jazeera.

“However, it seems unlikely that the EU will do that for now – a minimum of publicly .”

Crisis pending?
Rabat has had mostly good relations with Berlin, which is that the seventh-largest trade partner for the North African state and provided Morocco with 1.3 billion euros in loans and donations in 2020.

But the ECJ decision may prompt a fresh crisis in relations between Rabat and Europe, analysts said, if the judges rule out favour of the Polisario Front.

The Polisario Front contends that Moroccan exports from the desert territory amount to looting its natural resources, which include phosphates, agricultural goods and fish caught in waters off Western Sahara .

Gilles Devers, a lawyer representing the Western Saharan independence movement, told the AFP press agency the Polisario was waging a war against “Moroccan colonisation”.

Moroccan secretary of state Nasser Bourita told the state press agency MAP Rabat would repel what he called this “judicial harassment” and defend the kingdom’s partnership with Europe.

Cembrero believes the ECJ judgement, which isn’t expected until later this year, could enter favour of the Polisario Front.

“If the ruling goes in favour of the Polisario Front, Morocco may react. it’s unclear how at this moment. The trade with Europe is extremely important to Morocco and that they may extract some revenge if the court rules against them,” he said.

Isaias Barreñada, a Madrid-based expert on Western Sahara , believes Morocco has chosen to start out a diplomatic dispute with Germany because the ecu country may be a member of the UN Security Council .

“Europe won’t fold in its support for seeking a UN solution. But Germany is on the UN Security Council . this might be why Morocco has chosen to form the purpose with Berlin. it’s going to be trying to signal that it’ll not be pushed around,” Barreñada, who teaches diplomacy at Madrid’s Complutense University, told Al Jazeera.

Economic importance
Far from being an isolated patch of desert, Western Sahara has considerable economic importance for Morocco.

In 2019, Rabat exported $524m worth of fish, tomatoes, and melons from Western Sahara to Europe, consistent with European Commission figures.

In 2018, the ECJ ruled that an EU-Moroccan fishing agreement didn’t apply to Western Sahara since the consent of the Saharawi people had not been obtained for fishing during a referendum.

In order to bypass the ECJ ruling, the ecu Parliament sent a fact-finding mission to consult Saharawi groups but analysts some observers claimed these groups were approved by Morocco.

But the EU later said that this met the ECJ’s demands that the Saharawis had been consulted.

The Polisario Front has claimed that this allowed Brussels to take advantage of Western Sahara’s resources without the EU officially recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

Morocco has long insisted its claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara is non-negotiable.

As soon as Spain relinquished control of the colony in 1975, Rabat fought a war against the Polisario Front which lasted until 1991.

A ceasefire in 1991 was meant to be followed by a referendum on self-determination for the region but this has never materialised.

The UN has sought to broker talks on the territory’s future and while each side have said they’re going to come to the negotiating table, no solution has been reached. the newest talks ground to a halt in 2019.

Military tensions rose in November when Morocco sent troops into a buffer zone to reopen the sole road between Morocco to Mauritania and therefore the remainder of Western Africa.

International support for Morocco’s side within the dispute appears to be growing, with variety of African and Arab states recognising Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara .

However, some African and Eastern European states still recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic which Polisario leaders proclaimed in 1976.

“What is most vital for Rabat is maintaining trade rights to Western Sahara and it’ll not backtrack on staking its claim,” said Barreñada.


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