Morocco-Spain crisis escalates as Spanish MPs back Western Sahara 'self-determination'

Morocco-Spain crisis escalates as Spanish MPs back Western Sahara 'self-determination'
The Spanish parliament’s motion was held only a few hours before Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez arrived in Rabat, where the leader heralded a 'new phase' in relations between the two countries.
2 min read
08 April, 2022
The only MPs who sided with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's endorsement of the autonomy plan were the members of his party. [Getty]

Spain's parliament on Thursday backed a referendum of 'self-determination' for Western Sahara, despite Madrid's recent endorsement of a Moroccan-sponsored plan to instead grant autonomy to the territory.

Unidas Podemos (UP), an ally of the governing Spanish Socialist Workers, had urged MPs to support the UN's 1991 proposal to end the conflict in Western Sahara, which suggests holding a referendum on the future of the territory.

The Spanish parliament's motion appears to contradict its government's official support for Morocco's proposed autonomy plan that would give the territory autonomy instead of a referendum.

Thursday's vote in the Cortes Generales saw 189 Spanish lawmakers backing the referendum plan, 118 objections, and 61 abstentions.

The only party that appears to back Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's endorsement of Rabat's autonomy proposal were members of his own party, according to Europa Press.

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The parliament’s motion was held just a few hours before Sanchez arrived in Rabat, where the socialist leader heralded a "new phase" in relations between Spain and Morocco after a year-long diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Morocco presented its autonomy plan for Western Sahara in 2006, saying it would allow Sahrawis to run their own affairs "democratically" through legislative, executive, and judicial bodies but with Rabat retaining control over defence and foreign relations.

In an unprecedented move, Madrid announced last month its support for the plan after decades of pursuing a 'neutral' position on the issue.

The UN has backed Rabat's proposal but the Polisario Front, which continues to call for an independent state for Western Sahara, rejected the plan. Western Sahara was a former colony of Spain.

It follows decades of tensions and conflict between the Moroccan government and the Algerian-backed separatist group. 

The Polisario Front and Morocco both claim sovereignty and "historical right" over the territory, while the UN formally recognises neither position.

In 1991, the UN established a peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara to monitor a ceasefire and was tasked with organising a referendum on Western Sahara's future status.

The vote was set to take place in 1992 but aborted after Morocco refused to accept any referendum that could see the territory given independence. It has insisted that "autonomy" should be the only option on the table. 

In April 2021, ties between Morocco and Spain hit a low when Madrid allowed Polisario leader Brahim Ghali into Spain for medical treatment. Rabat reacted furiously, recalling its ambassador from Madrid.