To improve Morocco-Spain relations, first confront Spanish double standards

Ceuta-Melilla and Gibraltar: To improve Morocco-Spain relations, start by confronting Spanish double standards
6 min read
26 Jan, 2021
Comment: It is both incongruent and hypocritical for Spain to continue laying claim to Gibraltar while dismissing Morocco's claims to Ceuta and Melilla, writes Samir Bennis.
The old walled fortress of Melilla [Getty]

The enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have once again entered the centre of political debate in Spain. In a December statement to the Saudi news channel Al-Sharq, Morocco's head of government, Saad Eddine Othmani said that the Spanish enclaves are Moroccan, and urged Spain's government to open negotiations over their future, provoking a frenzy among a number of Spanish commentators.

But Othmani's statement was less about bringing Ceuta and Melilla to the fore, and more an attempt to convey Morocco's displeasure with Spain's lukewarm, and borderline hostile reaction to former President Trump's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said the decision took her government by surprise, adding that no country, no matter how powerful, can impose a solution that does not enjoy global consensus. In addition, the Spanish government has reportedly been in contact with the Biden team to convince him to reverse Trump's decision.

This flare up comes on the heels of tweets in mid-November from Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's Unidas Podemos and second vice-president of the government, in which he urged the UN to hold a referendum of self-determination.

Unsurprisingly, these moves did not sit well with Rabat, which was quick to convey its displeasure to Madrid by calling off the High Level Meeting that was due to take place on December 17. 

Unpacking Othmani's remarks

Instead of digesting the message and questioning whether Spain's approach aligns with its interests in the region, Spanish media cried foul and urged their government to show resolve in defending their sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla.

Spanish commentary tends to deny the very existence of a territorial dispute between Morocco and Spain, and officials and intellectuals have made this argument for over half a century. Whenever Morocco has called for open dialogue over the future of the enclaves, Spanish officials have adamantly dismissed such requests.

The facts disprove the unfounded claim that these enclaves have always belonged to Spain

Gibraltar: A hypocritical parallel

Most importantly, there is glaring parallelism here between these two enclaves and Gibraltar, starting with similarity of the geographical situation. The three enclaves are located in the natural territory of a foreign state. Therefore, they constitute a rupture and an obstacle to the continuity and the territorial integrity of the country where they are located.

In addition, in both instances, Spain and the UK have repeatedly considered abandoning their respective enclaves or exchanging them. For example, in 1811 the Council of Regents asserted that Ceuta and Melilla were not Spanish and proposed returning them to Morocco. Until the 1920s, Spain considered exchanging Ceuta with Gibraltar, but its attempt fell through.

Finally, the three enclaves have thrived on contraband and depend economically on their hinterland. Morocco's unilateral decision to close its borders with Ceuta and Melilla and to crack down on contraband has caused an unprecedented economic recession in both enclaves. Still, the main water sources that supply Ceuta and Melilla are located on the Moroccan side of the border.

It is both incongruent and hypocritical for Spain to continue laying claim to Gibraltar while dismissing Morocco's claims to Ceuta and Melilla, and even denying the existence of a dispute between the countries over them. No matter how hard Spanish intellectuals, politicians and opinion makers try to deny the obvious, historical facts that support Morocco's position cannot be dismissed. 

Read more: Spain calls on Morocco to explain comments on disputed Ceuta, Melilla enclave

Measuring the narrative against history

To dismiss Morocco's territorial claims, Spanish officials and intellectuals argue that Ceuta and Melilla have always belonged to Spain, and are as Spanish as Madrid and other cities on the country's mainland. They go as far as claiming that the two enclaves belonged to Spain before Morocco established itself as an independent state. Most importantly, the Spanish argument goes, Ceuta and Melilla are not on the UN's list of non-self-governing territories.

But Spaniards' defense of their country's sovereignty over the enclaves pushes them to overlook a number of key historical facts: Ceuta and Melilla were neither as Spanish as Madrid or Granada, nor were they always considered as Spanish. For example, in the 17th century, Spain did not consider Ceuta's inhabitants to be Spaniards. They were allowed to obtain Spanish citizenship only once they abandoned the city and moved to the peninsula.

During Spain's protectorate in northern and southern Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla depended administratively on Spain's High Directorate in Morocco. According to a 1935 decree, Spaniards needed a passport to visit them. In December 1955, General Franco enacted a law which, for the first time, designated Ceuta and Melilla as zones of full and inalienable Spanish sovereignty. But Ceuta and Melilla were ruled until 1983 by military officials, unlike other Spanish cities.

The iniquity of the treaties that Spain imposed on Morocco to assert its control over the two enclaves is another factor that weakens the argument that they have always been Spanish. Máximo Cajal and Alfonso de la Serna, two former Spanish diplomats, said that the treaties Spain uses to assert its sovereignty have no legal or moral value as they were signed under duress and at a time when Morocco was in a weak position.

The facts disprove the unfounded claim that these enclaves have always belonged to Spain. Morocco has a series of solid arguments it could use if it were truly adamant about ending Spain's occupation of Ceuta and Melilla.

Spain's visibly hostile and anachronistic response to Trump's move broke with this tacit agreement

Balancing priorities

Yet these cities have minimal importance compared to Western Sahara, Morocco's diplomatic priority for the past six decades. Hence its decision since 2006 to temporarily shelve its territorial claims over them. Rabat and Madrid have tacitly agreed to focus on strengthening their economy and security, casting aside all conflicting issues. This strategy has succeeded to a great extent, pushing Spain to take a position of positive neutrality on Western Sahara.

However, Spain's visibly hostile and anachronistic response to Trump's move broke with this tacit agreement. 
The debate Othmani's comments provoked in Spain shows that most commentators still view Morocco from the same outdated paradigm that portrays Morocco as Spain's existential threat. They have little grasp of Morocco's intentions and what kind of relations it seeks to establish with Spain.

Spanish media and think tanks should open up to Moroccan voices who will clarify that Morocco seeks to work hand-in-hand with Spain to build a zone of common prosperity and economic integration, where Ceuta and Melilla will have a role to play. 

But this cannot happen until Spain admits that the time will come to discuss the future of the two enclaves in the same fashion as Spain and the United Kingdom have been discussing the future of Gibraltar.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a PhD in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil.

Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.