Albares wins EU backing, says he is open to dialogue with Algeria

The Algerian mission in Brussels recants and assures that the trade suspension does not affect the Association Agreement with the European Union
José Manuel Albares

PHOTO/MFA  -   The Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation, José Manuel Albares, answers questions from the media in Brussels

The diplomatic crisis between Madrid and Algiers took a European turn on Friday. The decision of the Algerian presidency to put an end to the Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness with Spain signed in 2002 as a result of the change of position of Pedro Sánchez's government on the Western Sahara dispute has forced the head of Spanish diplomacy to travel to Brussels to seek the backing of the EU executive.

And so it has happened. After a half-hour meeting between the Foreign Affairs Minister, José Manuel Albares, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and the Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission issued a joint statement that described Algiers' action as 'worrying' because 'from the outset it appears to violate the EU-Algeria Association Agreement, particularly in the area of trade and investment'.

Brussels ratifies its position, set out minutes after the announcement made on Thursday, when it demanded that the Algerian authorities "backtrack" and reconstruct an agreement that guarantees, among other things, bilateral cooperation in the military, political, economic and counter-terrorism fields. But the decision, taken at the presidential residence of El Mouradia, is in response to the U-turn confirmed by the president of the government, Pedro Sánchez, in the Congress of Deputies.

From the rostrum, the Socialist leader claimed the autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty for Western Sahara as the "most serious, credible and realistic" basis for the resolution of the dispute in a speech that sparked criticism from the entire parliamentary spectrum, did not satisfy his government partners and irritated the Algerian government headed by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had been threatening to take reprisals since last March.

It did so by suspending the cooperation agreement that has been in place for two decades, which has so far fostered contacts between the two countries' productive sectors, investment projects and joint institutions. In the meantime, the Algerian Association of Banks and Financial Institutions announced the freezing of direct debits for foreign trade operations to and from Spain, which means that exports and imports of products have been cancelled.

Nicolás Maduro Abdelmajid Tebboune
PHOTO/Algeria presidency  -   Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune receives Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Algiers, 9 June 2022

"They know that the suspension of the friendship agreement means that cooperation in most areas can be reduced to the lowest possible level, so it is likely that all 'made in Spain' products will be boycotted," Algerian economic expert Ishak Kherchi tells Atalayar. "We have started to hear some rumours that some importers have not obtained licences to import from Spain, and these rumours may come true in the coming days.

"I think the move by the Algerian authorities was surprising to many, but it came after a package of retaliatory measures," Glasgow University researcher Zine Labidine Ghebouli tells Atalayar, referring, among other things, to Algeria's recall of its ambassador to Spain for consultations. "In this sense, Algiers saw Madrid's silence as a confirmation of its alliance with Rabat and is now trying to regain control of the situation".

"For now, Algiers is likely to press Madrid for a 'serious talk' on the Western Sahara issue, but in the long run things could get complicated," notes Ghebouli.

Albares, who came to the ministry to replace former minister Arancha González Laya with the aim of rebuilding relations with Morocco, has witnessed a new diplomatic rift. This time with a strategic partner the size of Algeria, whose trade volume with Spain amounts to 1.8 billion euros. On this occasion, the head of Spanish diplomacy has raised the bilateral crisis to the European level, although he stressed that the government is open to dialogue and will not give "any excuse for an escalation".

At the end of the meeting with the Vice-Presidents of the Commission, Borrel and Dombrovskis, the Foreign Minister declared that "the unilateral measure violates the association agreement between the European Union and this country, and therefore, although it is aimed at Spain, it affects the single market and Algeria's economic and trade relations". This assessment is shared by the EU executive in the communiqué: "The bilateral relations of third countries with the various EU Member States are part of their relations with the EU".

Algeria, for its part, denounced Brussels' hasty backing of Spain after assuring in a letter that the step taken by Algiers does not affect the agreement with the EU. "The European Commission reacted without prior consultation or verification with the Algerian government to Algeria's suspension of a bilateral political agreement with a European partner, in this case Spain, without ensuring that this measure does not directly affect either of them or indirectly affect their commitments contained in the Algeria-EU Association Agreement," reads the communiqué.

The EU Association Agreement initialled with Algeria contains a legal avenue for resolving the dispute, but its implementation could take months. In the event of non-compliance, Brussels has room for manoeuvre to adopt protective measures that would harm the North African country. However, the Commission is committed to dialogue despite the existence of another serious breach of contract by Algeria, which has imposed restrictions on certain European imports since 2015.

José Manuel Albares
PHOTO/MFA  -   The head of Spanish diplomacy, José Manuel Albares, during a press conference in Brussels

"We are in close contact with the Spanish government and in contact with the Algerian authorities to rapidly clarify the situation," adds the joint statement signed by Josep Borrel and Valdis Dombrovskis, which recognises Algeria as "an important partner for the European Union in the Mediterranean and a key player for regional stability". "We are confident that, in the name of our strong and lasting partnership, a swift solution will be found to fully restore trade and investment relations," the communiqué concludes.

The European External Action Service, the EU's autonomous diplomatic service, has been in contact with the parties since the beginning of the bilateral crisis with the aim of finding a negotiated solution. Albares insisted that the Spanish government advocates a return "as soon as possible to dialogue, to the friendship that the people of Spain have with the Algerian people" and to restoring "normal" economic links between Spain and Algeria, between the European Union and Algeria.

The Algerian authorities have also threatened to cut off gas supplies. Forty-one per cent of Spain's gas imports in 2021 came from Algeria, although this volume fell to 23 per cent as a result of the energy crisis. In this sense, Albares and the rest of the government have been confident about the permanence of the supply. I can assure you that the supply of natural gas from Algeria to Spain will be maintained at the same agreed amount until the end of the contract," says Kherchi, "after which, if there is no political consensus between the two countries, I expect that there will be no renewal of the gas supply contract.

The Algerian economist assures that "Algeria is a reliable partner and respects agreements. It is important to note that problems can only arise if Spain breaches its obligations under the contract, such as exporting gas to another country. As for liquefied natural gas, all possibilities remain open, as there are no restrictions or obligations between the seller and the buyer.

The Algerian mission to the European Union clarified in the communiqué that, with regard to the possible cut-off of gas supplies, the decision is ultimately up to the private companies, which will have to "assume all their contractual commitments".