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The ‘Rocky Mountains’ that separate Spain and Morocco

Updated: May 23

Cristina Catena Gasco

Spain and Morocco have historically had a tricky relationship. Sometimes, it is smooth and easy, but both states have periodically walked on eggshells. It is as if the two countries are separated by a great mountain range rather than calm and warm seas, and these heights do not make for better diplomatic relations.

Some of the "stones" of these "rocky mountains" have caused significant disagreement in the neighbourhood, such as the status of Ceuta and Melilla.

Ceuta and Melilla 

Ceuta and Melilla are two autonomous Spanish cities in North Africa, but also, in the broader sense, Ceuta and Melilla refer to all the modern Spanish possessions in North Africa - including other adjacent minor islets, such as Islas Alhucemas, Islas Chafarinas, Isla de Perejil and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera.

The disagreement between the government of Morocco and Spain begins with these territories. Even though they are legally and politically autonomous cities in Spain, with representation in the Spanish parliament, Rabat still considers these territories part of their state and, thus, has repeatedly contested Spain's sovereignty over them.

Morocco gained independence in 1956 when France and Spain gave up their Protectorates in North Africa. After this event, Ceuta and Melilla were initially designated as Spanish territory, not as a mere vestige of colonialism. Moreover, the Spanish presence and conquest in Ceuta dates back to the fifteenth century and the seventeenth century in Melilla.

On the contrary, Morocco insists that these two Spanish enclaves are within its state and are remnants of Spanish colonialism. Nevertheless, they are not even included in the list of non-self-governing territories by the United Nations, especially because Ceuta and Melilla have the same status as the semi-autonomous regions on the mainland. Furthermore, nationals of the European country have inhabited them since long before the Moroccan Kingdom existed.

The relevance of these two enclaves goes beyond history and finds its answer in geopolitics. These two land areas are mainly strategic maritime points that serve as a base for military, defence and commercial ports. They also function as the main door to and crossroads between Africa and Europe; their borders are key territories for migration from Africa. These borders are used for political leverage between Morocco and the European Union due to the control Morocco can apply to the migrant presence around these towns. This way, the Maghrebi country exerts varying degrees of control in the area, depending on its relationship with Europe and Spain.

...but there are other open flanks for Morocco (and Spain)

Tensions are intensifying between the Polisario Front – the rebel nationalist liberation movement that claims Western Sahara - Morocco and Algeria after Israel and the United States of America (under Trump's administration) recognised West Sahara as part of Moroccan soil. The West Sahara is defined as a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations, essentially a remnant of a former Spanish colony, unlike Ceuta and Melilla. In 1975, Spain withdrew from the region and left its future uncertain. 

Nevertheless, this territory is crucial from an economic perspective due to its abundant reserves of phosphate (a vital component in fertiliser production), which has become strategically important due to the current war in Ukraine. It also has access to rich fishing waters along its coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, which plays an essential role in the fishing agreement between Morocco and the EU. However, the agreement has expired because of a dispute over its legality and the inclusion of Western Sahara's representatives in the negotiations.

Morocco considers Western Sahara an integral part of its land and has controlled it for years. However, the United Nations has refused to endorse Morocco's claim, supporting a referendum on self-determination for West Sahara.

Regarding this matter, The Spanish government has just endorsed Morocco's autonomy initiative for Western Sahara as the "most realistic" way to resolve the conflict. This marks a change in the country's official position, which until now defended the UN agreements to hold a referendum, angering Algeria, a strategic player in gas distribution, especially during the conflict in Ukraine.

The Maghreb considers the whole territory its own, but an Algeria-backed independence movement demands a sovereign state. This change of perspective from Spain might be wholly correlated to the ambitious plans of Morocco to expand their territorial agenda, plans that could affect Ceuta and Melilla, as well.

The Western Mediterranean resembles a chessboard

The recognition of Moroccan sovereignty by different countries over Western Sahara poses a security challenge, as the conflict between Morocco and Algeria could reach high levels of hostility, with effects that would be felt throughout the region of the Strait of Gibraltar.

Once the West Sahara is a safe move to play, what piece will Morocco play next? In 2020, the Moroccan Prime Minister, Saad Eddine El Othmani, stated that once Western Sahara is entirely under Morocco's sovereignty, Ceuta and Melilla should be on the agenda. 

These statements provoked a response from the Spanish state and moments of tension in diplomatic relations between Rabat and Madrid. Tensions eased after the declarations made by Morocco's ambassador to Spain, who assured Spain that there was no change to the autonomous cities. At the same time, a particular historical Moroccan claim to them remains, and Spain maintains that both are fully Spanish.

Checkmate, stronger cooperation

Relationships are not easy, especially when two parties are so different. However, this should not be about dismissing the queen from the chessboard but seeking a more robust relationship. Spain (and the European Union) needs a strong relationship with Morocco for stability in North Africa, including Algeria. But Morocco also needs Spain and Europe, as the European Union is by far Morocco's largest trading partner and, hence, key to their economic growth. 

Respect for international law and United Nations resolutions should serve as a basis for this objective. Both should be seeking to reduce the dramatic deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean and increase cooperation between states. 

Image: JJ Merelo

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