Spanish foreign minister presses EU to retrain focus on migration

EuroActiv Politico News

MADRID — Spain wants the EU to revive its perpetually dormant migration talks after Madrid secured a related NATO pledge last week. 

During an interview from his majestic 15th-century official residence in downtown Madrid, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares told POLITICO the EU must finally settle on new rules for processing and relocating asylum seekers and undocumented migrants — something it has failed to do for years. 

It’s a task easier said than done. Migration policy has long bitterly divided EU leaders, and progress isn’t expected any time soon. But Albares argued new rules were necessary, describing them as a key missing piece to the EU’s migration policy.

The issue is a critical one for Spain, as the country regularly receives people coming across its borders from northern Africa, including many who jump the fence separating the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from surrounding Morocco. 

Last week, Spain convinced NATO to nod to the issue in its once-a-decade strategy document — a win for the country. Now Albares is urging the EU to follow suit, and go further. 

“We must strengthen the ties between the European Union and the countries of origin and transit,” he said. 

“Spain is the only EU country with a land border with Africa, and that is an external EU border,” he added. “If we consider Africa as one block and the EU as another, that land border is almost certainly the most unequal border on the planet by almost any criterion: GDP per capita, GDP, population, age, mother-child health, illiteracy.”

Spain leans on NATO

Northern Africa was one of the many subplots during last week’s NATO summit in Madrid, which mostly focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine and folding Finland and Sweden into the military alliance. 

As host, Spain was pushing NATO allies to pay attention to threats emerging from northern Africa, the Sahel and the Middle East, the alliance’s southern flank. Spanish officials argued that regional destabilization, not to mention local Russian and Chinese influence, was fostering terrorism and fueling migration.

In response to Spain’s appeal, NATO vowed to focus on these challenges in its updated “Strategic Concept,” the first time it had updated the long-term vision document since 2010.   

The pledge was Spain’s biggest goal for NATO’s summit, Albares said, arguing the language will help Spain tackle the “unacceptable political use of energy and migratory flows” as a weapon against EU countries.

Spain has separately stepped up its efforts to tackle the reasons pushing migrants to attempt a dangerous journey to the EU, but it can’t face the increasing number of arrivals alone, Albares added.

Yet while the country has worked to improve its relationship with Morocco since Albares was appointed foreign minister a year ago, it has still found itself in numerous migration controversies.

In the days leading to the NATO summit, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was accused of failing to condemn the violent response of Moroccan police to the attempted crossing of about 2,000 migrants on June 24, which left 23 to 37 people killed, depending on estimates. He later backtracked after admitting he hadn’t seen the troubling images.

Asked if Madrid demanded any sort of explanation from Rabat, Albares replied he wanted to wait for Spanish and Moroccan prosecutors to complete their inquiries before attributing responsibility. A group of 51 European Parliament members has also asked the European Commission to carry out its own investigation.

Albares also showed empathy toward the Moroccan officials patrolling the border.

“We should put ourselves in the shoes of those Moroccan police officers and gendarmerie because they do a very complex and difficult job — it is not easy to face an avalanche of 2,000 people unexpectedly,” he said.

The minister stressed managing migration flows can’t be done without Morocco’s cooperation and without more investment in Africa’s development. 

Under Sánchez’s leadership, Spain’s overseas aid has returned to levels not seen over the last decade and Albares is steering a bill to meet by 2030 the United Nations’ target of spending 0.7 percent of the country’s gross national income on overseas development.

Spain and Morocco 

During Albares’ tenure, Spain has made several major moves to appease Morocco.

Most importantly, Madrid in March abandoned the country’s neutrality toward Western Sahara’s independence claims, choosing to support Morocco’s plan to grant the territory autonomous status under Moroccan control. 

That left gas-rich Algeria, which advocates for Western Sahara’s independence, furious. The country tore up a cooperation deal with Spain in early June, triggering concerns that Algeria may cut off energy supplies to Spain — a step it has yet to take.

The situation represented quite the turnaround for Spain and Morocco. 

Shortly before Albares’ appointment, relations with Morocco had hit rock bottom when Madrid allowed a rebel leader in Western Sahara to secretly receive treatment for COVID-19 in a Spanish hospital. In response, Morocco relaxed its border controls, sending more than 10,000 migrants crossing into the Spanish city of Ceuta over a day and a half. EU leaders quickly closed ranks, calling on Morocco to protect the border.

Albares insists Spain can have good ties with both Morocco and Algeria simultaneously despite their differences over Western Sahara. 

But Spain’s actions have shown which partner takes priority. Since the end of June, Spain has played a key role in helping Morocco cover its energy needs by pumping gas through the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline. 

Spain is walking on a tightrope there, as well: Algeria, which had refused to sell its own gas to Morocco, threatened to cut gas supplies to Spain if it discovered Madrid was redirecting any Algerian gas to Morocco. 

Still, Albares said Spain’s relationship with Morocco “has entered a new phase” of “mutual respect and mutual interest” in which both countries want to tackle this century’s challenges together. 

This is “exactly the same” relationship Spain wants with Algeria, he continued, while cautioning that countries must not interfere in each other’s internal affairs or require exclusivity at the expense of good ties with other neighbors.

Albares, a former ambassador to France and one-time international affairs adviser for Sánchez, stressed that Spain is a “sovereign state that takes its own decisions autonomously.”

Its shift on Western Sahara, he argued, is not a decision “that affects Algeria or its people.”

“Spain’s position on the Western Sahara is very clear: we are looking for a solution under the framework of the United Nations that is mutually acceptable and we support the personal envoy of the U.N. Secretary-General [Staffan de Mistura] in his task,” he said.

Albares also refuted claims that supporting Morocco’s sovereignty claim over Western Sahara could embolden Rabat to press harder for control of Spain’s coastal enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Africa.

NATO’s duty to protect both cities in the event of an attack “has never been questioned” during Spain’s 40 years as a member of the alliance, he said. 

Last week, NATO leaders pledged to “defend every inch of Allied territory at all times” in a joint statement.

This statement, Albares said, represents a guarantee that Ceuta and Melilla would be protected, even if they are not technically covered by the alliance’s famed Article 5 clause — an attack on one member is an attack on all — which is buried in NATO’s foundational treaty of 1949 and predates Spain’s membership. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, however, also stressed that allies would have to make a “political decision” in such a situation — not necessarily an iron-clad guarantee.

“Spaniards and especially those who may want to threaten Spain should have no doubts: The government would always defend Spain’s territorial integrity and sovereignty to take its own decisions,” he said.