Algeria: « honeymoon » with Italy as it cuts ties with Spain

Algeria, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, gas,

Abdelmajid Tebboune, the Algerian president, recalls from Rome that his country’s relations with his friends, such as Italy, are based on « trust and on the word given and that does not change ». He thus alludes to the turn of the Spanish Government on Western Sahara.

The Algerian authorities do not reduce their irritation at the alignment of PM Pedro Sánchez with Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict. The Algerian president concluded a three-day state visit to Rome and Naples on Friday, veiledly comparing Italy’s fidelity in her friendship with Algeria to Spain’s alleged disloyalty. Algeria’s relations with his friends are fundamentally based on « trust and on the word given and that does not change, » Tebboune affirmed in the speech he gave last Thursday in Rome. « Any increase in production [of Algerian hydrocarbons] should be oriented, depending on demand, towards Italy, a friendly country, which could become a distributor for Europe, » he announced. Tebboune’s allusions to Spain highlight that Algeria’s anger with the Spanish government endures more than two months after, on March 18, a communique from King Mohamed VI revealed that Spain was renouncing its traditional neutrality in the conflict over Sahara and supports the solution advocated by Morocco to solve it.

The Moroccan authorities found out about this radical change in Spanish foreign policy through the press, by closing the crisis with Morocco with that great concession, Pedro Sánchez opened another with Algeria. « The head of the [Spanish] government has broken everything with Algeria, » Tebboune lamented on April 23 in a television interview. The clash with the leading economic power in the Maghreb has become chronic and will probably last until the end of the legislature in Spain, according to forecasts by diplomats from both countries. Despite his repeated attempts, the FM, José Manuel Albares, has not been able to establish a dialogue with the Algerian diplomacy, although he asked Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU, for help.

« As long as Sánchez is disavowed by Lower Chamber – and there have been three times already – on the Western Sahara, as long as this move of his policy supposes internal wear and tear for him, from Algiers they are not going to accept normalizing the relationship », affirms a European diplomat accredited in Algeria. Tebboune’s words in Rome contradict, in part, the aspirations expressed two days earlier in Davos by Sánchez. « Spain, the Iberian Peninsula and, I would say, southern Europe, will have the opportunity to provide an answer to this energy dependence on fossil energy from Russia, » he declared there in an interview with CNBC television.

That response that Sánchez mentions would have two pillars. The six Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) regasification plants that Spain owns and that account for 37% of Europe’s capacity, although to be able to export it, a better interconnection with France would be necessary than that of the two small gas pipelines that exist today. The second pillar would consist of strengthening the energy relationship with the Algerian neighbor, something unimaginable today. This relationship began to decline when, by order of President Tebboune, the GME gas pipeline that crossed Morocco was closed on October 30. Through this tube, the bulk of the Algerian gas reached Spain. Now only the Medgaz works, which, submerged in the Mediterranean, links both countries, but since the beginning of the year the flow has decreased by 12%. It is not clear if with this reduction Sonatrach, the Algerian public hydrocarbon company, is trying to put pressure on its Spanish clients, starting with Naturgy, in the ongoing negotiation on price revision.

ToufikHakkar, president of Sonatrach, dropped on April 1 that Spain would be the client whose rates would rise the most. Since the beginning of the year, the US has surpassed Algeria as the first supplier of Spain to which it sells LNG that arrives in methane tankers at Spanish ports. So far this year, only 22% of the gas consumed is imported from Algeria, while in 2021 that percentage was around 45%. Not a week has passed since the end of March without the Algerian authorities expressing, through declarations or the adoption of measures, their irritation with their Spanish neighbor. Algerian immigrants, like Moroccans, return en masse to their country for summer vacations and that is why their public airline (Air Algérie) and their shipping company (Algérie Ferries) increase their frequencies.

The Algerian Ministry of Transport announced on May 20 the plan for the summer that freezes flights (only four weekly between Algiers and Barcelona) and crossings with Spain (only one weekly between Alicante and Oran), which will make it difficult for the back and forth between the two shores of the Mediterranean. The matter was debated last Tuesday in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Assembly (Algerian Parliament Lower Chamber). Mohamed Hani, its chair, justified Transport’s decision, although he recognized that it would harm immigrants. « Some decisions are taken by higher authorities and, God willing, we will find alternative solutions for the Algerian community » abroad.

« Sometimes there are more important things » than serving immigrants, he added. « The choice of [air and sea] destinations is a sovereign decision. » « We haven’t removed the flights, but we haven’t added any, » he concluded. Algeria continues to allow Vueling and Iberia to operate between the two countries, but with very few frequencies. The transport restriction is added to many other reprisals taken since the Algerian ambassador to Spain, Said Moussi, was called for consultation on March 19. Among them, the suspension of the importation of Spanish beef stands out, whose annual exports were around 55 million euros per year – now they buy it from France – and the suspension, since April 2, of the repatriations of irregular immigrants arriving in Spain by sea.

The tension with Spain contrasts with the « honeymoon » that Algeria is experiencing with Italy. The authorities and the Algerian press value it, thus giving the Spanish government to understand that its commitment to Morocco has made it lose many opportunities. Tebboune concluded his trip to Rome on Friday, but this was preceded by visits to Algiers by PM Mario Draghi and FM Luigi di Maio.

This sensational strengthening of the ties between Algeria and Italy has caused concern in the Spanish government, as revealed in mid-April by the economic press agency Bloomberg. Italian and Spanish diplomats held talks after « concern grew in Madrid that their access to [Algerian] hydrocarbons could be affected, » he said. « They were merely informative contacts in which it was clear that the Italian-Algerian relationship will not harm Spain, » said a high-level Italian source.

When the agreements recently signed in Rome and Algiers are implemented, Draghi will be on the verge of achieving his goal: to make Algeria Italy’s number one energy supplier, ahead of Russia. Already last month, Sonatrach and ENI, its Italian equivalent, agreed to increase gas exports to Italy by some 9,000 million cubic meters per year through the Transmed gas pipeline that ends in Sicily. It could thus pump 30,000 million annually.

During the visit to Rome they also signed a memorandum of understanding for the development of green gas and hydrogen fields in Algeria. Tebboune himself announced, finally, that the project of an electrical submarine cable between the two countries that would pass through Sardinia is being reactivated.

El Confidencial, May 28, 2022

#Algeria #Spain #Morocco #WesternSahara #Gas