After a groundbreaking swing towards the far-right, how will Spain’s new Parliament temper Vox’s anti-Morocco rhetoric and maintain the country’s vital cooperation with Morocco?
Washington DC – In the recent Spanish elections, the far-right Vox party surprised international observers and analysts with its unprecedented success. Last Sunday, Vox won 52 seats in the Congress of Deputies after gaining only 24 in the April parliamentary elections. The right-wing party’s newfound popularity has given them the third most parliamentary seats in Spain.
In the wake of the elections, observers in Morocco are questioning how, and to what extent, the new political climate with a stronger far-right parliamentary element will affect relations between Rabat and Madrid.
The dramatic rise of the far-right party in Spain is likely to disrupt the relations between the two countries, especially with controversial issues like Ceuta and Melilla lurking in the background.
An impossible coalition
For one thing, although Vox will have an impact, it was never going to control Parliament’s agenda. Even before the two leftist parties formed a coalition, it was impossible to conceive of Vox participating in any government coalition for two key reasons. As the party is the third-largest in Spain’s Parliament, it did not hold a sufficient number of seats to lead a government coalition.
Vox’s participation in any government coalition depended on the political willingness of the socialist party (PSOE) or the People’s Party to welcome it into a coalition.
The second key obstacle keeping Vox from taking part in a coalition stems from its political rhetoric. The party’s platform is not in line with the political rhetoric Spain uses with its partners and allies, including Morocco, one of Spain’s most important strategic partners.
Given the two countries’ shared interests, over the past four decades Spanish governments—with the exception of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s time in office—have been clear on the importance of adopting a respectful political discourse with Morocco as an equal partner.
Even during periods when relations between Rabat and Madrid were strained, Spanish officials and politicians have tried to de-escalate tensions and showed eagerness to appreciate the solid bilateral ties and Morocco’s contribution to Spain’s security by fighting illegal immigration and terrorism.
Given the populist, misleading, anti-Moroccan, and anti-Islamic rhetoric on which Vox relies, it was impossible to imagine that either of Spain’s two main parties (the socialist party and the People’s Party) would enter into a coalition with Vox. Were the two parties to even hint at forming an alliance with Vox, bilateral cooperation with Morocco would be put in jeopardy.
Vox’s anti-Morocco rhetoric is based on the premise that Morocco is responsible for Spain’s illegal migration woes. The party has gained popularity by demonizing Morocco’s institutions, accusing them of collusion with human trafficking networks and criminal rings.
Meanwhile, the party also hopes to revive old, dormant tensions over Spain’s enclaves in Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla.
The populist demonization of Morocco
Still, Vox’s increased numbers in Spain’s Parliament and its victory at the polls in Ceuta may well unsettle relations between the two countries.
Vox’s position on a host of issues related to Morocco, particularly with regard to undocumented migration, Spain’s contested sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, and its threats to cut off Madrid’s financial support to Rabat, could cause serious embarassment to the Spanish government.
To avoid any negative impact of Vox’s presence in the Parliament on Morocco-Spain relations, the new coalition headed by Pedro Sanchez will have to strive more than ever before to curb any denigration of Morocco in the Spanish Parliament, as well as to educate the Spanish populace about the pivotal role Morocco has played in recent years in helping Spain manage undocomunted immigration and extremism.
The Spanish government will also need to avoid adopting populist rhetoric to cater to the mass of Spanish voters who expressed their disgruntlement with the system by voting for Vox.
Where do Ceuta and Melilla come into play? Vox’s rhetoric could resuscitate the Moroccan voices who want Rabat to break its 15 years of silence on the question of Ceuta and Melilla.
Since 2004, when the socialist party returned to the government, Morocco has sidelined its demands for sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla and has focused, instead, on improving relations with Spain. Over the past 15 years, Morocco has endeavored to ensure that Spain adopt a position of positive neutrality on the issue of Western Sahara.
During the reign of the late King Hassan II and in the early years of the reign of King Mohammed VI, Ceuta and Melilla were a constant topic in Morocco’s rhetoric towards Spain. During that period, Morocco questioned Spain’s sovereignty over the two enclaves not only in bilateral meetings but also in multilateral settings such as the United Nations.
Since 2004, Morocco has, however, put the issue on the back burner.
The question of Ceuta and Melilla has been conspicuously absent from King Mohammed VI’s speeches to the nation on the Green March, the Revolution of the King and the People, and Throne Day since then. Moroccan officials also did not include it in the agendas of regular meetings with their Spanish counterparts.
However, should the far-right party continue to demonize Morocco, the Moroccan government might find itself under pressure from the people and Moroccan media to officially question Spain’s sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla.
Such a scenario would adversely affect Morocco-Spain relations and risk undoing the efforts officials of both countries have made over the past 15 years to strengthen their strategic partnership.
A surge in Vox’s provocative rhetoric against Morocco, especially regarding Ceuta and Melilla, is likely to cause Rabat to take retaliatory measures to isolate the cities and cripple their shaky economies.
Ceuta and Melilla’s shaky economies
It is an open secret that Ceuta and Melilla thrive economically thanks to the smuggling of goods into Morocco. The illegal activity is harmful to the Moroccan economy and deprives the state of significant revenue, estimated at €540 million annually in customs’ rights and taxes.
A move from Morocco could harm the economies of Ceuta and Melilla. Morocco’s decision in July last year to close customs with Melilla and divert importation operations to the port of Beni Nassar seriously damaged Melilla’s economy and deprived it of an estimated €47 million in revenue.
Morocco’s decision prompted officials in Melilla to call on the central government in Madrid to intercede with the Moroccan government to reopen the border. However, the border remains closed.
Even before Vox’s emergence and its callous use of anti-Moroccan sentiment, the Moroccan government had taken incremental measures to curb the illegal economy that has thrived between northern Morocco and Ceuta and Melilla, which amounts to over €2 billion every year.
In January, Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit told the Moroccan Parliament that Morocco must end smuggling. He said the issue is a burden on the national economy, despite the fact that tens of thousands of people in northern Morocco rely on it financially.
Morocco has sought in recent years to gradually end smuggling and strangle Ceuta and Melilla’s shaky economies in the long run. In recent months, Morocco has made several decisions designed to minimize the impact of smuggling on the national economy.
For example, the Moroccan government recently suspended the movement of goods between Ceuta and northern Morocco for 42 days. It also imposes restrictions on goods that can enter Morocco through the city’s borders.
And in June, Morocco displayed its political will by ordering Moroccan diplomats and civil servants not to use the two cities to enter Spain.
The smuggling of goods from Ceuta and Melilla has bogged down the Moroccan economy for several decades and doomed any government attempt to create a strong and resilient economy in the region and provide sustainable job opportunities.
Smuggled goods can also be a health risk since the goods are not controlled or monitored by authorities. There have been several cases of poisoning among Moroccans because they ate expired goods smuggled into Morocco.
Ceuta and Melilla have lived off smuggling and kept their economic viability as long as Morocco has turned a blind eye to the illegal trade.
The enclaves should be cautious of full-throated support for Vox. Vox’s anti-Morocco rhetoric and its provocative calls on Morocco to recognize Spain’s sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla will eventually backfire, harming far-right Spanish voters and the status of Ceuta and Melilla under Spanish sovereignty.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.