The Spanish daily has claimed that Morocco is using the pandemic to keep the Ceuta and Melilla land borders closed until September.
An article published in today’s issue of Spanish newspaper El Espanol claimed that Morocco plans to intentionally cut off Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla by keeping the land borders closed until autumn.
“The Moroccan authorities will exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the land borders closed until the month of September,” El Espanol asserts.
The newspaper adds that the “objective” is to “drown” informal trade between residents of northern Morocco and the Spanish enclaves.
According to El Espanol, the alleged extended border closure aims to “force Spanish citizens to redirect part of their income, which until now came principally from trade, into tourism.”
Journalist Sonia Moreno did not reveal her sources for the scoop, complementing the information with the phrase “according to what El Espanol has been able to find out.”
The article outlines how an extended border closure would damage the livelihoods of Moroccans who travel to Melilla or Ceuta for informal trade, saying such a measure would directly impact over 60,000 Moroccans who, before the pandemic, crossed the border into Ceuta on a daily basis.
El Espanol admits, however, that Moroccans who work legally in Melilla and Ceuta will still be able to cross the border once Rabat lifts the travel suspension.
Morocco, meanwhile, remains in a state of emergency with residents and citizens on lockdown since March 20. The government has suspended all cross-border air, land, and maritime travel as part its efforts to protect the population from the spread of COVID-19.
Rabat announced on April 18 a month-long extension on the state of emergency. Thus far, the government has not made plans for the post-pandemic exit strategy public.
The tension between Rabat and the city enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla predates the COVID-19 pandemic border closures.
Morocco implemented restrictions on the Ceuta border Tarajal II gate on October 9, 2019, while the Melilla border crossing has been closed for nearly two years.
The closures came when Rabat could no longer turn a blind eye to the detrimental effects of informal trade on its economy.
In February 2019, the director-general of the Moroccan Administration of Customs and Indirect Taxation, Nabyl Lakhdar, 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 emphasized that Morocco was forced to turn to “radical” solutions to “permanently” stop the contraband border crossings with Melilla and Ceuta.
The Moroccan move put severe pressure on the economies of Ceuta and Melilla which depend largely on informal trade. Rabat, however, was operating on a loss and had to act to protect Morocco’s economy.
In January, the autonomous governments of Ceuta and Melilla held an emergency meeting in Malaga to come up with a plan to save their economies.
Ahead of the meeting, spokesperson for the Ceuta government Alberto Gaitan claimed that Morocco was attempting to “suffocate” the two cities and called for an “energetic” response.
The two governments must come up with an ambitious independent economic program that “does not depend on Morocco,” he said.
We need to “guarantee a solid future for our city,” Gaitan added, remarking that the two enclaves must act, despite a lack of action from Madrid.
“Spain and Ceuta must not go on their knees to Morocco and need to find an alternative exit route from this situation,” he warned.
Today’s claims in El Espanol come as no surprise. Some Spanish media have a long history of antagonism with Morocco.
On April 1 hostile headlines splashed across the Spanish press, accusing Morocco of exploiting the pandemic to unlawfully seize the waters off the Canary Islands.
The sensationalist headlines and critical claims came after Morocco formalized a set of laws, in line with international regulations, to define its maritime borders in the waters between the coast of Morocco’s Western Sahara and the Spanish Canary Islands.
The formalization came after the parliament in Rabat voted to adopt the amendments in December 2019.
The amendments pertain to the limits of Morocco’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in line with international law as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The first of the two amendments, law 37-17, defines Morocco’s territorial sea that extends over 12 nautical miles from the Moroccan Atlantic coastline.
In accordance with the UNCLOS, Morocco has sovereignty over its territorial sea and airspace.
The second text, law 38-17, delimits Morocco’s EEZ, extending 200 nautical miles from the coast of Morocco’s Western Sahara. The law also outlines the limits of the continental shelf at 350 nautical miles from the coast.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya responded to the formalization with a calm and measured series of tweets, emphasizing the strong relationship and ongoing dialogue between Madrid and Rabat.
“Morocco and Spain are in agreement that maritime delimitation will need the resolution of overlaps through mutual agreement, in accordance with international law,” she wrote.