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Washington D.C – Spain’s government was swift to react to the statement that Morocco’s Head of Government, Saad Eddine El Othmani, made earlier this week about the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco.
Speaking to Saudi television channel Al Sharq, El Othmani said that Ceuta and Melilla are part of Morocco’s territory, adding that there will be a need to open discussion on their future with the Spanish government.
Though Morocco has put the question of Ceuta and Melilla on the back burner over the past 15 years, it has always contested Spain’s sovereignty over them and urged it to open discussions on their future.
El Othmani’s statement sent shockwaves across Spain’s political landscape, prompting the European country’s Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Cristina Gallach, to summon the Moroccan Ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich. The Spanish government said it expects all its partners to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This was music to the ears of the Moroccan government who has worked for the past five decades to preserve the country’s territorial integrity and ensure that its partners, especially Spain, respect its sovereignty.
Yet this is where Spain has failed the test in recent weeks amid unprecedented developments that risk reshuffling the dispute over Western Sahara.
Positive neutrality or ambiguous hostility?
Over the past 15 years, Spain has adopted a position of positive neutrality on the conflict, at times giving the impression that it sided with Morocco. From Rabat’s point of view, this posture was a welcome development, at least in light of Spain’s historic role in the conflict. But when push came to shove and Spain had to clarify its position, it failed to do so, causing a silent tension between the two countries.
Tensions between Rabat and Madrid started brewing after a member of the far-left party Vox in Melilla insulted the Moroccan people and accused Morocco of blackmailing Spain.
Then Pablo Iglesias, leader of the radical left-wing party Unidas Podemos and vice-president of the Spanish government, posted in mid-November a series of tweets in which he urged the UN to allow the Sahawaris to exercise their right to self-determination. Though Rabat made no official comments on the tweets, the move was perceived as an unwelcome, hostile act from Madrid. Spanish attempts to reassure the Moroccan government about the unchanged nature of its position fell short of calming the waters.
But adding insult to injury is Spain’s ambiguous position on President Trump’s recent decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Spain’s Minister of foreign affairs, Arancha González Laya, has said that Trump’s decision blindsided the Spanish government. Within days of Trump’s announcement of a “historic” agreement with Morocco, Laya told a Spanish radio that a solution to the Sahara conflict does not depend on a single country, however powerful and influential it may be.
The Sahara dispute, she appeared to argue, should instead be handled through a UN-sponsored political process that enjoys global consensus.
By carefully choosing her language to reiterate the central role that the UN should play in the conflict, Spain fell short of taking a clear stand and expressing its full support for Morocco. If anything, Spain’s foreign minister’s lukewarm statement was a far cry from the statement issued by the French government.
Although France, too, has so far fallen short of unambiguously recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, Paris has been clear about the Moroccan Autonomy Plan constituting a basis for serious and credible discussions.
Worse still, Spain has, according to Spanish newspaper el Español, been in contact with President-elect Joe Biden’s team to convince him to reverse Trump’s decision and revert to multilateralism.
Morocco’s diplomatic firepower
This is definitely not what Morocco expects from its top economic and trade partner. By all available indications, Spain’s increasingly irritating ambiguity caused the high level meeting between Madrid and Rabat that was supposed to take place on December 17 to be postponed. Though Rabat said the meeting was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that King Mohammed welcomed a US-Israeli delegation five days later shows clearly that the pandemic was not the reason for the postponement.
Given the latent tension between Rabat and Madrid, most notably the former’s displeasure with the latter, it is unclear when this meeting will take place, though it has tentatively been set for next February. Unless Spain clarifies its position and shows willingness to provide political support to Morocco’s Autonomy Plan, the chances for the meeting to be held in February are very slim.
Against this backdrop, El Othmani’s comments about Ceuta and Melilla are neither random nor uncalculated. Instead, the comments translate Morocco’s displeasure with Spain’s unclear — and at times hostile — position when it comes to supporting Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
In this sense, El Othmani’s message can be construed as a way of calling on the Spanish government to reign in the members of its coalition and not allow any of them to play around with Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. It is also a way of signaling to the Spanish government Morocco’s weariness with Spain’s reluctance to clearly express its Western Sahara stance.
Morocco should put pressure on Spain to follow suit with the United States. Along with France, Spain bears the responsibility for the genesis and the prolongation of the conflict. Madrid knows all too well that this territory belonged to Morocco before Spain took control of it beginning in 1884 — and Spain’s diplomatic archives are full of documents to prove just that.
If Spain wants to benefit from the dividends of maintaining strong relations with Morocco, it is high time that it put aside its postcolonial hypocrisy and recognize Morocco’s historical and legal rights to its southern territories Acknowledging the merits of the Moroccan Autonomy Plan as the most viable route to a lasting political solution should be the first step in clearly embracing Morocco as a “natural” and “excellent” Spanish ally.
That Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara has further strengthened Morocco’s position is beyond dispute. As things currently stand, Rabat has many means of pressure to demand that Spain show respect for both Morocco’s territorial integrity and the Moroccan people.
Morocco today is not the unassertive country that Jose Maria Aznar could blackmail at will in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The international context is not the same as 20 years ago, and Morocco’s bargaining power has markedly increased over the years. More to the point, the geopolitical context today is such that the economic, political and social stability of Spain is extremely linked to that of Morocco.
Time for Spain to choose
Spaniards should come to terms with the fact that Western Sahara is a matter of life and death not only for the Moroccan monarchy, but for the entire country. Moroccans are increasingly aware of the disastrous effect that the prolongation of the conflict has had on the present and future of their country.
For 15 years there has been a tacit agreement between Morocco and Spain to let economic and security interests take precedence over potentially conflicting issues (the status of Ceuta and Melilla, for example). Under this tacit understanding, Spain had to adopt a position of positive neutrality on the Sahara question.
Spain, however, has broken this agreement with Iglesias’ tweets and the Spanish political and intellectual class’ reluctance to break with a stubborn adherence to an outdated view of the Sahara dispute.
The prevailing diplomatic consensus on the Sahara issue appears to have decisively embraced Morocco’s autonomy proposal, and Rabat expects its “natural” allies to help make the case for the viability and seriousness of its plan. .
Spain’s stability and security, as well as the success of its immigration and counterterrorism strategies, depend to a great extent on its close cooperation with Morocco. Over the years, Rabat has made considerable efforts to help Madrid curb the influx of undocumented immigrants, as well as prevent a number of terrorist attacks on Spanish soil.
For this and other reasons, Spain should have a clear position on Western Sahara. It cannot keep repeating that Rabat and Madrid enjoy “excellent” ties, while shirking its responsibility in the Sahara conflict and lacking the courage to clearly support Morocco’s sovereignty.
Just as Spain jealously and fiercely defends its strategic interests, Morocco has worked hard to preserve its own, especially its non-negotiable territorial integrity. Spain has to come to terms with this reality and take heed of Morocco’s expectations by showing understanding of and respect to the country’s desire to preserve its territorial integrity.
Only by expressing a real desire to work in good faith with Morocco and shouldering its responsibility in a conflict of its making can Spain reassure Morocco that it wants to wipe the slate clean. Or that it is genuinely interested in working hand in hand with its “indispensable” Moroccan neighbor to achieve stability, prosperity, peace, and mutual respects between the Moroccan and Spanish people.
As for Ceuta and Melilla, there will be a more opportune time for the two countries to negotiate a creative and realistic solution that could preserve their respective interests.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.