New York - Since the independence of Morocco, Moroccan territorial claims on Ceuta and Melilla have often been at the center of the issues that have negatively impacted relations between Spain and Morocco. Perhaps this question would not have had the same negative impact on these relationships if Moroccan leaders had been more determined in the early sixties, during the height of decolonization, to resort to the United Nations and prompt this international organization to consider these two enclaves as colonies that needed to be emancipated from any foreign presence.
New York – Since the independence of Morocco, Moroccan territorial claims on Ceuta and Melilla have often been at the center of the issues that have negatively impacted relations between Spain and Morocco. Perhaps this question would not have had the same negative impact on these relationships if Moroccan leaders had been more determined in the early sixties, during the height of decolonization, to resort to the United Nations and prompt this international organization to consider these two enclaves as colonies that needed to be emancipated from any foreign presence.
However, there were two important factors that prevented the Moroccan authorities from following this path to regain the territorial integrity of their country. The first factor was the major territorial disputes that conflicted Spain and Morocco in the initial years after the independence of the country.
Given how complicated it was for Moroccan diplomacy to fight simultaneously on many fronts, the Moroccan authorities decided to proceed in stages in their efforts to work for the recovery of the Moroccan territories that were still under Spanish rule. Therefore, given the importance that the issue of the Sahara was gaining in the early sixties, Moroccan authorities made this territory’s reintegration into Moroccan sovereignty their top priority.
The second factor that led Moroccan officials to postpone the settlement of the question of Ceuta and Melilla consisted in the predisposition showed by Spanish authorities to progressively settle their territorial disputes with Morocco. Ultimately, the strategy adopted by Spanish officials proved beneficial for safeguarding the interests of Spain in these two cities.
By showing their willingness to gradually settle the territorial disputes that opposed the two countries (especially after its turning over of Sidi Ifini, which had no economic or strategic importance for Spain), Madrid managed to neutralize the Moroccan claims on the enclaves, avoid its internationalization and maintain sine die their status quo. As explained in my previous article, this strategy, cleverly exploited by the Spanish leaders, prevented Morocco from inscribing Ceuta and Melilla on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories that the colonial powers were to decolonize from.
This miscalculation of Moroccan diplomacy would eventually enable Spanish leaders to dismiss the Moroccan claims as legally baseless and left all of Rabat’s attempts aimed at opening a dialogue on their future status unsuccessful, while rejecting any parallels between the two enclaves and Gibraltar.
To show that there are no contradictions in its position with international law, some Spanish claim that the fact that Ceuta and Melilla are not considered Non Self-governing Territories confirms their full belonging to the Spanish state and reveals the weakness of Moroccan claims about the colonial character of the two enclaves.
Moreover, to question the legitimacy of Moroccan claims on these territories and highlight the alleged lack of popular support they suffer from within the public opinion, some Spanish authors claim that Moroccan officials use their claim on Ceuta and Melilla as a strategy to divert public attention from its internal problems (poverty, unemployment of graduates, corruption, lack of freedoms and human rights, etc.) and build popular support around the monarchy.
But while putting forward such an argument, these authors forget that regardless of all calculation of the Moroccan authorities, all components of the Moroccan society aspire to see their country one day eliminate all vestiges of colonialism and achieve its territorial integrity. These authors ignore the fact that it is rather the Spanish officials who instrumentalize their disputes with Morocco for electoral purposes.
How then to explain the reluctance of the various Spanish governments to accept opening talks with Morocco on the issue of Ceuta and Melilla and their determination to deny the existence of a dispute between the two countries over them? How to explain that during the election campaign of 2004, the former head of the Spanish government honored the 65 soldiers who had taken part in the evacuation of Moroccan gendarmes from the island of Leila (Perejil), even knowing that this gesture could strain the climate of relations between the two countries?
How to explain that Mariano Rajoy, current Spanish Prime Minister, during the electoral campaign that led to his party’s victory, expressed in July 2011 his opposition to the possibility that Moroccans living in these two enclaves should vote during the next municipal elections to be held in 2015? How can we explain the decision of the current Spanish government to send a detachment of the Guardia Civil to the three Jaafariya islands located 50 kilometers east of Melilla, on the tenth anniversary of the Incident of Leila in July 2012?
On all these issues, as we have seen during the last two decades, whenever the Popular Party is leading the Spanish government- as was the case the two mandates of former Prime Minister José María Aznar- Spanish leaders are well aware that an uncompromising attitude towards Morocco can only satisfy Spanish public opinion- especially the hard core conservatives, who still see Morocco as an enemy- bringing favorable results in electoral terms. This is all the more true that, as has been stated by Professor Laura Feliu, Morocco is considered by the Spanish political class as an internal matter to Spain.
A second problem is the growing overlap between domestic politics and foreign policy, which has important implications for relations with Morocco. Morocco was (though we have almost forgotten), is, and certainly will be increasingly seen in Spain as an “internal matter”. This raises a number of challenges that were evident during the mandate of the popular party (Partido Popular)[…]. This “internalization of relationships makes Morocco a special object of Spanish foreign policy. The consolidation of the special relationship will be difficult to realize, again, without an effort from within the state apparatus […].”
As underlined by Juan Goytisolo, the famous Spanish advocate for rapprochement between Morocco and Spain, this awareness of the political benefits that arises from large sectors of Spanish public opinion through an uncompromising attitude towards Morocco is one of the main reasons that prompted the Spanish government during the Leila crisis of July 2012 to adopt a bellicose tone:
That the consensus generated around actions, like the ‘reconquest of the island’, turned out to be ephemeral and ultimately in vain, and had little importance. The head of government knew that this way of handling the situation increases its popularity and emulates Mrs. Thatcher in her triumphant recovery of the Falklands islands.
Taking into account the attachment of the majority of Spanish to the permanence of their country’s presence in Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s governments that have steered the country since the death of Franco know well that the opening of negotiations with the Moroccan government about the future of these cities or any attitude or official position in favor of their return to Moroccan sovereignty, or at least aimed at finding a solution that satisfies both parties and respect their respective rights will elicit the rejection and condemnation of Spanish society. Any party that dares to take such stances would not only be exposed to an electoral defeat, but also jeopardize its political future.
 Laura Feliú, « Hacia la normalización de las relaciones entre España y Marruecos», (www.fride.org/File/ViewLinkFile.aspx?FileId=271).
 Juan Goytisoslo, « Moros en la costa », El País, 21 de julio de 2002.
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