Spain vows to defend its interests after Algeria halts trade, except gas flow

MADRID— The Spanish government will firmly defend its national interests in the wake of Algeria’s decision to suspend a 20-year-old treaty of friendship and cooperation and ban all non-gas trade with Spain, a move that also alarmed Brussels.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said on Thursday Spain was monitoring gas flows from Spain’s second-largest supplier after the United States, but these were unaffected by the diplomatic row over Madrid’s stance on the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

The European Commission’s foreign affairs spokesperson Nabila Massrali told reporters Algeria’s decision was “extremely worrying” and called on the Algerian authorities to review it and work with Spain on solutions to their disagreement.

Algeria’s banking association on Wednesday ordered stopping payments to and from Spain, which, according to Algerian sources, affects all trade except for gas supplies.

“We are analysing the reach and the national and European consequences of that measure in a serene, constructive way, but also with firmness in the defence of Spain and the interests of Spaniards and Spanish companies,” Albares told reporters.

Spanish exports to Algeria include iron and steel, machinery, paper products, food, fuel and plastics, while service exports include construction, banking and insurance business.

Spanish energy firms Naturgy, Repsol and Cepsa have contracts with Algerian state-owned gas company Sonatrach.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has previously said he would not break the supply contract over the row.

Spain’s Energy Minister Teresa Ribera was confident Sonatrach would respect its commercial contracts, but acknowledged that the diplomatic and trade spat comes at a delicate time as the prices of the 10-year supply contracts are now being revised by the companies involved.

North African gas supplies to Europe have grown increasingly important this year in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Algeria was angered when Spain said in March it supported a Moroccan plan to offer autonomy to Western Sahara. Algeria backs the Polisario Front movement seeking full independence for the territory, which Morocco regards as its own.

The conflict flared again in 2020, nearly three decades after a ceasefire, leading Algiers to break off diplomatic ties with Rabat last year, when it also decided not to extend a gas export deal via a pipeline running through Morocco to Spain that made up nearly all of Morocco’s gas supply.

Supplies, now using the remaining direct subsea pipeline and by vessel, have dropped to just over a quarter of Spain’s gas imports in January-April, from nearly half a year earlier.

Algeria’s treaty with Spain also committed both sides to cooperate in controlling migration flows, raising fears that its suspension could lead Algiers to relax its border controls and fuel a surge of arrivals to Spain as did a diplomatic row with Morocco last year.

That could pose a potential problem also for the European Union and even NATO.

Spain, as host of an upcoming NATO summit, will push for the inclusion of “hybrid threats” such as irregular migration, especially on the southern flank, in the military alliance’s new policy roadmap, Albares said on Wednesday.

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska expressed hope the discord will not alter its security cooperation and illegal migration flows.

Arrivals of Algerian migrants have been on the rise in recent years. In Spain’s Balearic islands – a route mostly used by Algerians to get to Spain – police had to expand their screening facilities after around 2,400 migrants on 164 boats arrived in 2021, about five times more than in 2019.

On Wednesday, 115 undocumented migrants arrived in the Balearic islands, with 104 of them being Algerians, Spanish police said.