The Ceuta and Melilla Issue Once Again

The Ceuta and Melilla Issue Once Again

Mohammad el-Ashab |

The day the Moroccans and the Spanish became convinced that negotiations would be the better way to end Madrid’s military and administrative influence in the Western Sahara, General Franco was on his deathbed while young Prince Juan Carlos was preparing to ascend the throne. Spain’s new elites had no alternative but to break away from military rule, and Prime Minister Arias Navarro considered it inevitable to look for a solution that would spare the two neighboring countries the dangers of a potential military confrontation looming on the horizon.


The Moroccans realized at the time that it would have been out of the question for Spanish soldiers to open fire against unarmed civilians marching towards the Western Sahara. The response to this was that the Green March had achieved its objectives, signaling the start of several rounds of negotiations that culminated in the ratification of the Madrid Accords, without a single drop of blood being shed.


To the same extent as the Moroccans benefited from the period of political transition in Spain, they refrained from embarrassing their neighbor in the Iberian Peninsula and did not put forward the issue of the two occupied cities, Ceuta and Melilla, as preconditions to any dialogue or agreement. And to this day, they have never recorded their sovereignty dispute with Spain in an official document at an international forum, with the exception of diplomatic statements meant to record stances – on one hand because they consider the solution to be contingent on the dispute being settled between Madrid and London over Gibraltar, and on the other because the element of time is sure to dust off an issue not subject to any statute of limitations.


On the occasion of the high-level meeting between officials of the two countries, the issue was only listed on the agenda to the extent required to prevent reproach, in case the issue were to be raised of the uninhabited islands dispersed along the Southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea near the two occupied cities. Indeed, the Spanish, and in particular the leaders of the People’s Party (PP), are well aware that the red color donned by bullfighting fans in Spanish arenas turns into a red line when any Spanish official visits Ceuta and Melilla, which the Moroccans consider to represent provocation and a violation of the Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighborliness.


The Spanish are preoccupied with the repercussions of the economic and financial crisis, and are looking for outlets to drain it away through austerity, by submitting to the conditions placed by the European Union, and by getting rid of additional burdens. They will certainly obtain Morocco’s support, even if merely symbolic, most prominently in terms of ratifying a harmonious version for the renewal of the coastal fishing agreement from which the Spanish fishing fleet benefits. As experience has shown, the economic crisis threatens to split society into a wealthy North and impoverished margins, and renewing the treaty could alleviate the fears of Andalusia’s fishermen.


Beyond the symbolic value of taking such a direction, it asserts that extending towards Europe would not be complete without equally balanced cooperation between the countries south of the Mediterranean, countries which represent a natural outlet for the geology of interests and benefits. Indeed, it has often been said that Morocco was like a tree whose roots are in Africa while its branches extend towards the outskirts of Europe. And here the golden rule of inevitable cooperation dictates that European partners should head south in order to aid their own heartbeat with some unpolluted air.


It does not matter if the size of such cooperation is leaning towards one side or the other. Indeed, what matters is that Morocco and Spain can integrate in a dynamic of understanding that would remove all obstacles. Perhaps their concern to extend bridges of trust and to sustain minor shocks indicates that broader cooperation, without a political background or unwanted sensitivities, can be reinforced in the right direction if a shared desire is shown for ending the issue of the two occupied cities. And since relations between the two neighbors are moving in an encouraging direction, despite continued Spanish occupation of Moroccan territories, they would be encouraged to develop at a renewed pace the day they become free of problems considered to be from among the remnants of the colonial era. And the Spanish cannot imagine themselves to be the last to submit to the logic of ending colonialism.


The two occupied cities are no longer as they had been in the past. Indeed, their demographic makeup itself has been affected after new generations of Spaniards have moved to settle there. Moreover, the cost of defending these two cities no longer meets strategic necessities, especially since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Additionally, the incorporation of the two cities into the Schengen Area encourages illegal immigration. In fact, there are still large numbers of African migrants waiting for any opportunity to cross to the other side of the border, and it does not seem that the steel fences erected by Spanish authorities and equipped with radar and technical equipment have allowed the latter to catch their breath.


The opportunity is available, if not today, then in the negotiations agenda. A time is sure to come when Spain will become convinced that withdrawing from the two cities while preserving their economic and commercial interests would be preferable to maintaining a military and financial burden that would be better spent elsewhere. Indeed, there is a theory that considers trust-building to be more likely to sway those most radical in their stances. And every time Spain’s People Party returns to power, the issue of the two cities once again rises to the surface. One of the results of this has been that the two countries have been unable to demarcate their marine borders, seeing as this cannot be done without the future of the two cities being decided. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that, even if it is not devoid of internal conflicts, this means that some issues can be brought down from the shelf when fingers are pointed at them in one way or another.