Morocco: Spain plans to end the crisis in Ceuta and Melilla

By Nina Kozlowski
Posted on Friday, 9 July 2021 21:02

A border post between Spain and Morocco in the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta, Spain, on 13 March 2020. REDUAN/EPA/MAXPPP

A month and a half after the “migratory” and diplomatic “crises” between Rabat and Madrid, the Moroccan authorities have reinforced security along the border with the city of Ceuta. The Royal Gendarmerie has installed new barbed wire along the coastal area near Tarajal beach, through which almost 12,000 migrants passed illegally on 17 and 18 May.

For its part, Spain’s interior ministry also intends to reinforce the security at its border post to prevent new mass arrivals, notably “on board motor vehicles”.

But this is not the only concrete response from Spain, whose government is not very vocal on the main issue, namely the “Brahim El Ghali case”. The leader of Western Sahara’s Polisario Front – which seeks independence for a region that Morocco claims the control of – is currently hospitalised in Spain.

On 15 June, in an interview with the radio station Cadena SER, Spain’s foreign affairs minister Gonzalez Laya explained that she had sought “to be discreet with regards to Morocco”.

Nothing new on the Sahara

She added: “I think we have to put things right. We are discreetly creating the conditions. I don’t want to say or do anything that could call into question our desire to resume our relationship with our Moroccan partners.” Laya then announced that “Ceuta and Melilla have made demands that we are currently reviewing.”

At the end of June, the Spanish newspaper El Païs revealed that Spain had written a report detailing a strategic plan to combat “the economic asphyxiation that Morocco had inflicted on two of its autonomous cities.” This socioeconomic rescue plan was ordered by Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Recently, Spain’s foreign affairs ministry conceded that this diplomatic crisis had forced both countries to speak much more plainly about Western Sahara, Rabat’s priority, but also about the Spanish territories, Madrid’s priority. However, Madrid still firmly believes that Western Sahara requires United Nations mediation.

A flashpoint

The report warns of the two cities’ rapidly deteriorating social situations. It discusses the “economic disconnection” with the Moroccan border area, which Madrid attributes to Rabat’s “constant and inalienable national objective” to “annex” Ceuta and Melilla. The report also mentions that the borders between Morocco and the two Spanish cities have been closed for more than a year now.

This closure has brought smuggling traffic to a halt, as it used to generate around €1.5bn ($1.8bn) per year in Ceuta and Melilla.

The report warns of the “demographic change” due to migration flows and the growing population of Moroccan origin residing irregularly in the two cities. The document goes further, referring to “a socio-demographic challenge” that translates into “growing polarisation”, a “social divide”, a rise in “xenophobic feelings” and a “detachment from the state”.

Locally, members of the Spanish population feels abandoned by the central government and argues that public services have suffered, especially because they are “available to foreigners”.

The socioeconomic data for these two cities is among the worst in Spain, with an unemployment rate of around 30% for Ceuta and 20% for Melilla, while the per capita income of both cities is six times higher than that of the surrounding Moroccan regions. Hence, the complaints about unsustainable migration.

This “flashpoint” has existed for a long time, but Spain has preferred to turn a blind eye to it so that it can continue to maintain good relations with Morocco, based on a sort of status quo regarding the issue of Spain’s self-governing cities and Western Sahara.

This year – after Spain received Ghali and then the migration crisis – “this dynamic exploded,” according to El Païs. Today, 800 minors are still housed in makeshift centres, while some 2,000 migrants live on the streets.

Madrid’s response

While waiting for the strategic plan, which will be directly managed by the territorial administration ministry, the report presents a roadmap for Spain to follow. Madrid is already studying the possibility of including Ceuta and Melilla in the customs union and of reforming the two autonomous cities’ economic and social regimes.

The report also recommends maximising tax benefits “to promote new sectors of activity”, in particular tourism (cruise ships) and online gambling.

The document also suggests improving links with Spain and generating a zone of “shared prosperity”, a concept used in relations with Gibraltar.

Finally, it calls for a revival of port activity, especially in Melilla, which has suffered greatly due to competition from the neighbouring Moroccan port of Nador. In the medium term, Spain could go even further by integrating the two sovereign cities into the Schengen area, and by giving Frontex guards free access to Ceuta and Melilla “to prove that their limits correspond to the European Union’s southern border.”

On the subject of demographic change, the report points out that it is accompanied by an “increase in Rabat’s political and religious influence” and that “numerous examples of fraud related to effective residence and rights are just some of the issues that cause problems between communities and contribute to polarisation and difficulty in coexisting.”

Therefore, Spain intends to both reinvest in its public services and combat fraud. This strategic plan will be costly for Spain, “but these two cities are already extremely expensive,” says a Spanish journalist, who argues that it is above all a question of “strengthening Ceuta and Melilla’s European character”.

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