The presidents of the two enclaves maintain that Ceuta and Melilla will remain part of Spain “whatever the cost.”
By Safaa Kasraoui and Madeleine Handaji
Morocco’s government-imposed restrictions and the permanent closure of the borders that hundreds of women “mules” use to carry goods in and out of the Spanish enclave to sell.
Rabat suspended access to the Ceuta border Tarajal II gate in October 9, and closed the Melilla crossing border over 18 months ago.
President of Ceuta Juan Vivas and his counterpart Eduardo de Castro of Melilla acknowledged that the two enclaves are experiencing economic difficulties in the face of Morocco’s decision to suspend goods trafficking between the two borders.
The two leaders said that the two enclaves are going through “moments of difficulty,” saying the “attitude of the neighboring country is not positive for our two cities,” reported Melillahoy.
At a recent meeting, the two leaders discussed the common challenges facing their cities.
The meeting will help Ceuta and Melilla to find ways of working together, as one state, to face the economic and diplomatic problems they both face, the news outlet added.
Vivas and Castro, however, are confident that Rabat will not “win,” stating “We will come out ahead because as hard as our neighbor country tries, we have Spain, a great country, behind us and we are convinced that it will be able to come to the aid of these two cities.”
Vivas added that unity is vital. “Strength is in unity,” he emphasized.
Vivas is part of the far-right Vox party, a political party that opposes Morocco and its policies. He and his party demonize Morocco holding it responsible for the flow of irregular migrants entering Spain.
On top of the economic challenges the two enclaves face, Vivas cited the number of unaccompanied Moroccan minors who enter the cities without documentation. He said the issue is “forcing” the enclaves to act.
The far-right, anti-Morocc rhetoric of Vox member Vivas could mean trouble for both Spain-Morocco relations and Rabat’s silence on the question of Spain’s sovereignty over the two enclaves, a silence Morocco has maintained since 2004.
Morocco can no longer turn a blind eye
The past 15 years of Spain-Morocco relations have been characterized by strong bilateral relations between Madrid and Rabat however this has not always been the case.
Prior to 2004, the status of Ceuta and Melilla played a key part in Rabat-Madrid dynamics, particularly during the reign of Hassan II. The two enclaves depend on an economy based on informal import and export, or goods trafficking.
Morocco has long turned a blind eye, despite the fact that it defines the trafficking of goods as illegal.
The practice damages the Moroccan economy as it means the loss of large amounts of money that could be generated through paying taxation fees.
The director-general of the Moroccan Administration of Customs and Indirect Taxation, Nabyl Lakhdar, in February estimated the value of the products entering Morocco through the Ceuta border between MAD 6 billion and MAD 8 billion per year (between €550 million and €730 million).
Lakhdar underlined that Morocco supports a “radical” solution to “permanently” put an end to contraband border crossings with Melilla and Ceuta.”
However, Moroccans living in the northern cities of Tetouan, Fnideq, Nador and the adjacent regions also use the enclaves to buy Spanish products in order to sell them in northern regions, profiting from the informal economy.
Suspending the trafficking goods from the regions means economic stagnation for the region as both enclaves will lose hundreds of customers.
The opening of the borders was agreed upon in the Hispanic-Moroccan treaty of Fez, in 1866.
It was ratified shortly after Morocco’s independence in 1956.
While the move from Morocco did strangle the economies of Ceuta and Melilla, Rabat’s move was one in defense of its own economy.
The decision to close customs in Melilla in July of 2018 has already damaged the economy of the enclave, depriving the city of an estimated €47 million in revenue.
The enclave authorities immediately urged the Spanish government to reach an agreement with Morocco to reopen the border.
While Vivas and his counterpart are determined to find a solution through working together, their nationalistic, battle-lines rhetoric may do more harm than good in terms of relations with Rabat.
The Vox politician emphasized the “Spanishness” of the two enclaves. The people of Ceuta and Melilla, “have been living in Spain for years, whatever it takes and whatever the price.”
The statements from Ceuta and Melilla come as Morocco and Spain are set to enter negotiations about the delimitation of their respective maritime borders.
Morocco is expecting the arrival of Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Arancha Gonzalez Laya, who is set to arrive in Morocco today to enter into could be a tense a dialogue with her Moroccan counterpart.
The Spanish government has rejected Morocco’s “unilateral decision” to claim its legitimate rights over the waters off the coast of its southern region of Western Sahara which faces the coast of the Spanish Canary Islands.
Speaking in Rabat at the House of Representatives, Morocco’s FM Nasser Bourita underlined Morocco’s willingness to enter into negotiations, inline with international law.
It remains to be seen whether the question of Melilla and Ceuta’s economic crisis will also be tabled during the Spanish FM’s visit.