Moroccan and Spanish intellectuals have launched a debate on the status of Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish-controlled enclaves in northern Morocco, during an online panel discussion.
The videoconference, organized by the Spanish forum Frontera Abierta (Open border), brought together several speakers, including Spanish journalist and writer Ignacio Cembrero and Moroccan political analyst Samir Bennis.
El Othmani’s statement
The debate began with a discussion on the recent statements of Morocco’s Head of Government, Saad Eddine El Othmani, on Ceuta and Melilla, which caused controversy and almost left a dent in Moroccan-Spanish relations.
In a televised interview on December 19, El Othmani stated that Morocco and Spain should begin discussing the situation of Ceuta and Melilla.
“Ceuta and Melilla are among the points on which it is necessary to open discussion,” the head of government told Saudi television channel Al Sharq.
“This file has been suspended for five to six centuries, but it will be reopened one day,” he added.
During the debate, Bennis explained that El Othmani’s statement came after several provocations from Spanish officials.
He recalled that Pablo Iglesias, the Second Deputy Prime Minister of Spain, went against his country’s official stance and challenged Morocco’s territorial integrity.
Iglesias shared in late November a tweet where he called on the UN to enforce a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara—a statement that does not take into consideration Morocco’s Autonomy Plan in the region.
The Moroccan analyst also recalled that, a few days after US President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara—a major breakthrough for Morocco, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying the territorial dispute can only reach a solution through international consensus.
“For Morocco, all these Spanish attitudes go against the exemplary nature of the relations between the two countries,” Bennis said.
“Morocco expects its first economic partner to provide political support to the Moroccan Autonomy Plan, at least,” he added.
Cembrero, meanwhile, criticized the Spanish government for how it reacted to El Othmani’s statement. In response to the statement, Spain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Cristina Gallach, summoned the Moroccan Ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich, for clarifications.
For Cembrero, the Spanish move was unnecessary. “There was a certain overreaction,” the Spanish journalist said.
Commenting on the complicated nature of Morocco-Spain relations, Bennis argued that recurring stereotypes about Moroccans on Spanish media are some of the main reasons many Spaniards adopt an anti-Moroccan ideology.
“Morocco and its people want to establish bridges of understanding with Spain, but that can only happen when the Spanish press changes its approach and gets rid of its stereotypes, in which Morocco is always presented as the bad guy who hurts Spain,” the foreign policy expert said.
“We are not condemned to understand each other, but we want to do it willingly. We want the Spanish to understand what the Moroccans want,” he added.
Switching back to El Othmani’s statement, Bennis considered what the head of government said to only be a wake-up call: “It does not mean that Morocco will claim sovereignty over the two cities in the immediate future.”
Ceuta and Melilla over the years
After extensive discussions on El Othmani’s statements, the debate shifted towards the status of Ceuta and Melilla throughout history.
The two cities were under Morocco’s control for much of the medieval age. Spain only claimed Ceuta and Melilla in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively.
Bennis recalled an episode in Spanish history, between the 18th and 19th centuries, when Spain considered abandoning the cities because they represented a “burden.” It was not until 1995, when Ceuta and Melilla became autonomous, that the Spanish kingdom’s attachment to its sovereignty over the cities grew.
Several Spanish authors mentioned Spain’s readiness to abandon Ceuta and Melilla in their publications, including former diplomat Alfonso de la Serna, Bennis said.
According to the Moroccan analyst, however, Morocco missed a major opportunity to reclaim control of the cities when the late King Hassan II decided to freeze the claims.
“Morocco made serious miscalculations in 1963 when [the late King] Hassan II decided with [Spanish leader] Franco to freeze the claims on Ceuta and Melilla,” Bennis said.
But, he added, considering recent geopolitical developments, Morocco has enough arguments to support its sovereignty claims over the cities.
Spain’s recent request to negotiate the status of Gibraltar with the UK will open the door for Morocco to negotiate the status of Ceuta and Melilla, Bennis argued.
“No global power would accept that Spain takes possession on both sides of the Strait [of Gibraltar], through allowing it to keep Ceuta and Melilla and to recover Gibraltar,” he explained.
Gibraltar, the UK-controlled territory in southern Spain, directly faces Ceuta. If Spain controlled both territories at the same time, it would have complete dominance over the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the busiest maritime routes in the region.
Cembrero, however, disagreed with the comparison between Gibraltar, Ceuta, and Melilla.
“Gibraltar is not part of the United Kingdom, but Ceuta and Melilla are two cities perfectly inserted in the constitutional and institutional architecture of Spain,” he claimed.
The Spanish journalist also argued that it is impossible to decide on the status of territories without taking into consideration what their populations want.
“The overwhelming majority of those who live in Ceuta and Melilla want the two cities to remain under the sovereignty of Spain,” he declared.
Cembrero claimed that all the political parties advocating for the incorporation of Ceuta and Melilla into Morocco faced “resounding electoral failures.”
Bennis, on the other hand, argued that Morocco’s economic progress will become more attractive than the opportunities that Ceuta and Melilla offer, leading to a shift in Spain’s attachment to the cities.
“I think that, whether we like it or not, in 30 or 40 years, the change in the structure of Ceuta and Melilla and the progress of Morocco will turn the two cities into an economic burden for Spain,” he explained.
The comment on Morocco’s efforts to make its northern regions more prosperous shifted the debate towards the deteriorating economic situation of Ceuta and Melilla after Morocco banned smuggling from the two enclaves.
Bennis argued that Morocco’s decision to prohibit irregular trade between Ceuta, Melilla, and their neighboring Moroccan cities sought to protect its national economy, without any ill-intent against Spain.
“It is well known that Ceuta and Melilla have, because of smuggling, been a cancer for the Moroccan economy,” he explained.
Cembrero agreed that Morocco has the right to prevent smuggling and to protect its economy. However, he considered the Moroccan decision to be sudden and unilateral.
“There are decisions that must be discussed with Spanish authorities,” the journalist claimed. “I do not agree with how Morocco has done it, without consulting Spain and overnight.”
Despite their diverging perspectives on the issue, Bennis and Cembrero agreed that it would be in the benefit of both Morocco and Spain to launch negotiations.
“The first step that Moroccans and Spaniards should take for joint prosperity is to undo the wrongs of the past, open a debate about them, and have an understanding of history,” Bennis said.
“What happens in Spain affects Morocco and vice versa. When there are economic problems, the economies of both countries suffer. The paradigm must be changed … We must build a common future,” he continued.
Cembrero agreed, echoing Bennis’s hopes: “I would like [Ceuta and Melilla] in the future to be two cities interconnected with their surroundings through open and fluid borders. Without a close relationship between Spain and Morocco, the two cities will have a very complicated economic future.”