By Ahmed Eljechtimi
RABAT (Reuters) - The United States' recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara last year has emboldened Rabat to take a harder line with European states on the issue - an approach manifested in the migrant crisis with Spain this week.
A senior Moroccan minister on Tuesday justified the relaxation of border controls with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta by citing the manner of Madrid's decision to allow a Western Sahara independence leader to go to Spain for hospital treatment.
Western Sahara has long been the lodestar of Moroccan foreign policy as it worked to convince other countries to accept the territory as Moroccan against the claims of the Algeria-backed Polisario independence movement.
In December, U.S. President Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over it as part of a deal that also included deeper Moroccan diplomatic relations with Israel - the apex of Rabat's Western Sahara efforts to date. Trump's successor Joe Biden has not yet indicated any reversal of that policy.
"Morocco is seizing the U.S. recognition as a window of opportunity to maximise profit in favour of its position over Western Sahara," said Mohamed Masbah, head of the independent Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.
More than 20 countries - mostly African and Arab - have opened consulates in Western Sahara, effectively recognising Moroccan sovereignty.
Though it has pushed back against allies on the issue before, Washington's changed position has encouraged Rabat to take a harder line - and to exploit its role in obstructing mass migration to Europe.
Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said in January the European Union should leave its "comfort zone" and back Rabat's offer of Western Saharan autonomy within the Moroccan state.
ROW WITH GERMANY
Western Sahara was occupied and ruled by Spain from 1884-1976. When Spain left, Morocco annexed the territory and encouraged thousands of Moroccans to settle there. The Polisario Front waged a guerrilla war against Morocco's claim with the support of neighbouring Algeria.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991, which included the promise of a referendum on its status but this did not take place - and there is little sign it ever will.
The dispute with Spain, Morocco's biggest trading partner, is the worst in nearly 20 years. It has also this year rowed with Germany over Western Sahara.
This month it recalled its ambassador to Berlin for consultations, citing what it called Germany's "destructive attitude" over Western Sahara and accusing it of "antagonistic activism".
Germany, like Spain and other EU members, has continued to say it wants a U.N.-brokered solution to the dispute while giving space to independence activists to present their case.
Berlin pushed for a U.N. Security Council meeting on the issue and one of its regional assemblies raised a Western Sahara independence flag on its building for a day.
"Germany...focused on the Sahara in a way that is detrimental to Morocco's interests," said Adil Benhamza, an opposition politician and former parliament member.
Spain's decision to give medical care to Polisario leader Brahim Ghali, using what Morocco says are Algerian documents, and without consulting Rabat first, sparked the latest row.
Morocco, which backed Madrid over Catalan independence, rejects Spain's position that its motives are humanitarian, and recalled its ambassador to Madrid for consultations.
Spain was a colonial ruler in parts of Morocco as well as the Western Sahara, and Morocco continues to claim Ceuta and Melilla, the two enclaves Madrid still holds in North Africa.
Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani, who annoyed Spain in December by saying Morocco wanted to "retrieve" the enclaves once the Western Sahara issue was resolved, said on May 10 it was planning an "appropriate response" to Spain's hosting of Ghali.
"The influx is a warning message from Morocco, which does not want to play the role of a policeman for Europe in return for money anymore," Benhamza said. "It seeks diplomatic gains in return."
(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; editing by Angus McDowall and Angus MacSwan)