Catalonia's Sovereignty and Spain’s Shifting Diplomacy in North Africa

Spain’s pro-Morocco stand during last month’s United Nations deliberations on the Western Sahara has taken observers by surprise. Moroccan and Algerian officials were left wondering about the reasons behind Madrid change of heart. However, recent events suggest that the rise of Catalan nationalism could be the reason behind Spain’s reversal of course on the issue of “independence for the Western Sahara”. The ruling Partido Popular (PP) “paranoia and fear” of the specter of an independent Catalonia, puts Madrid and Rabat on the same side of the “self-determination” issue.


As Catalans’ national aspirations grow, so does Madrid’s distrust of international separatist movements including the Algeria based Polisario. The PP concluded that a flagging Polisario would thwart Catalonia’s efforts to gain international recognition for its drive for independence.


Spain’s central government believes that a referendum in Catalonia and the eventual independence of this economically vital region will be devastating to the nation. As such, Madrid chose to distance itself from Algeria’s push for a referendum on  self-determination for  the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony.Catalan nationalists plan to hold an independence referendum in 2014.


After years of disregarding the political ramifications from of the cozy relationships between the Algeria backed Polisario Front and the indigenous Catalan and Basque organizations, Spain’s central government finally recognized that such activities are dangerous to the “unity of Spain.” In their efforts to internationalize the Catalan drive for self-determination, Catalan nationalists began to adopt political and diplomatic practices used by the Polisario and Algeria against Morocco in the Sahara conflict, pushing Madrid to identify with Rabat’s positions.


In a sign of alarm among the Centralists, former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (from PP) announced his intention to seek office again. Aznar, who likes to portray the image of a tough politician, promised to crush “the rising movement for independence in Catalonia”. He accused the Catalans of ‘violating constitutional agreements and refusing to abide by legality in making a secession bid.”


Moreover, Spain finds itself in the uncomfortable situation of feeling targeted when Members of the European Parliament (MEP) make statement on   “The right to self-determination “for Sahrawis”.  Recently, at the request of Catalan and Basque MEPs, the Special Rapporteur of the European Parliament for Human Rights in Sahel Region and Western Sahara issued a report detailing suppression of some aspects of the “Saharawi culture”. Catalan MEPs are setting precedents in the Western Sahara to use against Madrid on a later date.


The Spanish Constitutional Court’s decision to suspend the Catalan Declaration of Sovereignty has put Catalan and Spanish on a confrontational course. All of sudden, Spain, that tolerated the activities by the self-declared Saharan Republic (RASD), find itself faced with similar situation.  The Catalans are waging a media war and a successful public relations campaign to gain international recognition for their future independent Catalonia.


The Catalan regional government and institutions including, the local parliament, are actively involved in supporting the Polisario and the RASD. For the Catalan, an internationally recognized Sahara Republic may increase their chances of splitting from Spain. If, the two major political parties, the PP and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), allowed the Polisario to roam freely in Spain in order to weaken Morocco, the Catalan support to “the Sahrawi cause” is ideological and based on the believe of the international principal of self-determination.


In fact,  Catalan nationalists support causes of a variety of minority groups hoping for independence, including the Kabyle people of Algeria. The Movement for the Autonomy of the Kabylie (MAK) maintains good relations with Catalan organizations and regional government agencies which support the rights of the Kabyles to an independent nation.


As Catalans intensify  their aggressive support for an  independent Sahara and  a free Kabylie, Spain can no longer justify defending the Polisario and Algeria while denying Catalonia the  right to sovereignty.


Morocco has stayed on the sideline up until now. Rabat views the Centralists clash with the Catalan separatist leader Artur Mas drive for a free Catalonia as a Spanish domestic affair. However, Moroccan nationalists are taking note of Madrid’s comments, policy, legal maneuvers and political actions as Spain fights for its unity.

Hassan Masiky