The NATO Summit held in Madrid on 28-29-30 June represents a turning point for the North Atlantic Alliance. The invasion of Ukraine has turned the spotlight on the resurgence of a revisionist Russia, still the main threat to NATO and its partners that are also affected by the growing strategic competition with China. Despite the inevitable shift of attention towards the moving frontline on the eastern flank, the power of geography entails a delicate balance with the needs of NATO member-States looking south and facing a Mediterranean Sea where multiple hybrid threats are looming.
Hosting the NATO summit, the Spanish government has indeed drawn the attention of its partners and allies on the activities of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company that serves Moscow’s strategic interests in Africa, in particular in countries like the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan.
In the past few weeks Madrid has insisted on the strict association between the Russian expanding military foothold in North Africa and Moscow’s long-standing ties with Algeria, a main client of Russian military hardware since its independence. Despite non-alignment seems to remain the main principle guiding Algeria’s foreign policy for the time being, Spain’s not-so veiled reference is certainly instrumental in rallying the support of NATO allies amid worsening bilateral relations between Algiers and Madrid after the suspension of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.
Same pleas for support have been apparently made to the EU by Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares, who replaced his predecessor María Aránzazu ‘Arancha’ González Laya last year in a move clearly intended to repair relations with Morocco, at a low point after the Ghali affair. At that time, the hospitalisation of the leader of the Polisario Front Brahim Ghali in Spain for COVID-19 treatment caused the swift retaliation of Rabat, which relaxed border controls at the Spanish enclave in Ceuta leading to an unprecedented surge of migrant arrivals (more than 8.000 entries in just two days in May 2021).
More than one year later, Madrid’s turnaround on the Western Sahara (where it is now endorsing Morocco’s plan for the autonomy of the region as the most serious, realistic and credible basis for negotiations) has produced a forced marriage that is brutally stemming migratory flows along the Western Mediterranean Route, as shown by distressing images coming from Melilla.
Authorities said that on 24 June a stampede caused at least 23 deaths among migrants attempting to enter the Spanish enclave, while the UN deplored the use of excessive force on both sides of the border. Even the African Union expressed deep shock, calling for an immediate investigation that could have serious implications for Morocco’s new African policy, including in the energy sector, where Madrid and Rabat have just started to reverse the flow of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (MEGP). The move, which confirms the total alignment between Morocco and Spain, could however further complicate relations with Algiers, that has already threatened to terminate gas supplies to Madrid if it provides Morocco with Algerian gas and is considering raising the price of its gas sales to Spain.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region