The past week has been dominated by the latest foreign relations conflict with Spain. Algeria has traditionally prided itself in its adopted stance of non-intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs but this is extremely hypocritical. It has been largely responsible for the expansion of Islamist extremism and war in the Sahel over the last decade and more. The regime thrives, rather like President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in making overseas enemies in order to try and convince Algerians that the country’s many domestic political and economic problems are caused by ‘enemies abroad’ and not by its own follies. Its bête noire has traditionally been Morocco and the conflict has spiced up over the last year or two by the regime’s fabricated designation of two domestic enemies — the Rachad Movement and the Mouvement pour l’autonomie de la Kabylie (MAK) — as ‘terrorist organisations.’ Now, however, it seems that the regime is doing everything possible to add Spain — and possibly also, by association, the European Union — to its list of ‘enemies.’
Algeria’s row with Spain reached new heights on 8 June when it announced: the suspension of the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation which was signed on 8 October 2002 which has governed bilateral relations for decades; and the freezing of bank operations for trade with Spain.
The row started on 18 March after Madrid announced its decision to end its previous neutrality and support Morocco’s proposed autonomy plan for the disputed Western Sahara. Algeria called the sudden and dramatic U-turn by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government over Western Sahara a ‘second betrayal’ of the Sahrawi people, with the first being its decision to allow Morocco to occupy the territory after its withdrawal in 1976.
Having escalated the crisis over the last two months with threats about gas supplies and beef imports, Algeria formalised the economic reprisals by freezing foreign trade with Spain in an 8 June decision announcement by the Association des banques et établissements financiers (Abef). This is a substantial blow to Spanish companies which exported nearly US$3 billion of goods to Algeria in 2019 and US$2.1 billion in 2020. Spain was Algeria’s third-largest customer behind Italy and France in 2020 and its fifth-largest supplier behind China, France, Italy and Germany.
Throughout the crisis, the Spanish authorities have made relatively little comment on the succession of retaliatory actions but have been prolific in defending and justifying Madrid’s new position on Western Sahara. On 8 June, for example, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made a strong justification for his support for Morocco. It was almost certainly this latest explanation of support for the Moroccan position that led Algeria to suspend the 2002 Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation.
Algiers is now claiming that Madrid’s position vis-à-vis Morocco and Western Sahara is in ‘violation of its legal, moral and political obligations.’ A statement attributed to the Algerian Presidency said: ‘This attitude of the Spanish government is in violation of the international legality imposed on it by its status as the administering power and the efforts of the United Nations and the new personal envoy of the Secretary General and contributes directly to the deterioration of the situation in Western Sahara and in the region.’
For its part, Madrid has said that it regrets the decision to suspend the cooperation treaty. According to diplomatic sources, ‘the Spanish government considers Algeria as a neighbouring and friendly country and reaffirms its full availability to continue to maintain and develop the special relations of cooperation between the two countries, in the interest of both parties.’ In subsequent statements, the government has promised a constructive approach to the crisis, saying that it was convinced that Algiers would continue to honour its gas delivery contracts.
Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares discussed the dispute in Brussels on 10 June. Meanwhile, Nabila Massrali — the foreign affairs spokesperson for the EU with which Algeria is bound by an Association Agreement — expressed ‘the extreme concern’ of Brussels, and called for a reversal of the decision to suspend the cooperation treaty but Algiers did not respond.
On 10 June senior EU officials said that they believed that Algeria’s decision could violate international trade law. If the message was still unclear, a joint statement — from the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and Valdis Dombrovski — warned that the EU was ready to oppose any type of coercive measures applied to an EU member state. While saying that the EU prioritised dialogue to resolve controversies, the threat is clear, and especially because Brussels believes that the instruction to Algerian financial institutions is in violation of the EU-Algeria Association Agreement and particularly in the area of trade and investment.
There could be serious consequences if Algeria persists on this latest course of action. Listening to its latest rhetoric one cannot help but wonder if the generals — who made this decision along with the ideologues in the Presidency — had ever read the Treaty’s many chapters. If they had, it is unlikely that they would have suspended it in the way that they did this week.
The treaty, which Algeria has ratified, makes it very clear that if either party wishes to cancel or suspend the Treaty, it must give six months’ notice of its intention to do so. Therefore, if Algeria want to bury the friendship treaty and all that it entails, it cannot do so until the end of 2022 by when much may have changed.
Any hasty actions could leave the regime open to untold international legal implications. Madrid believes that the unilateral freezing of trade with Spain could violate the 2005 Euro-Mediterranean Agreement which established a regime of preferential association between the former European Economic Community and Algeria.
We think that it is unlikely that Algeria will break its current gas supply contract commitments to Spain. Foreign Minister Albares has given public assurances that the decision should not affect the flow of Algerian gas to Spain ‘which’, he said, ‘remains normal.’ Energy Minister Teresa Ribera said in a radio interview that she did not think that the contracts could be unilaterally terminated by Algeria. Despite the regime’s prioritisation of retaliatory politics over economics, the costs of potential international litigation might just prove prohibitive.
If Algeria persists with its current vindictive strategy against Spain, it will almost certainly be cutting off its nose to spite its face. This is because discussions, possibly unknown to the regime’s generals, are taking place behind the scenes amongst predominantly European financiers and financial institutions to save Algeria from itself, or, to put it more realistically, to save Europe from the potentially catastrophic consequences of Algeria’s political and economic collapse. Billions of dollars and Euros are potentially available but, if Algiers continues to flout international treaties and trade agreements in the manner which it currently seems intent on doing, it might find such prospective investments being withheld.
This is a shortened edited version of a longer analysis by Algeria Politics & Security of Algeria’s suspension of its 2002 friendship treaty with Spain.This excerpt is taken from Algeria Politics & Security, our weekly intelligence report on Algeria. Click here to receive a free sample copy.