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  • Mohamed Abdulkahar

Ceuta: A Bump in Moroccan-Spanish Relations

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

On April 22nd, it was announced that the Polisario leader (the group that opposes Moroccan control of the Western Sahara) was receiving treatment from Covid-19 in Spain. This move stirred up anger in Morocco due to the relationship with Western Sahara.

Leading the Polisario Front, Ghali is a fighter for an independent, democratic republic, while Morocco is adamant about its claim of the region. Morocco had previously warned Spain that keeping Ghali in their territories would bring about consequences.

Conflict in Western Sahara, Spanish-Moroccan relations

On May 17th, many people, mostly Moroccans, migrated to the Spanish territory of Ceuta, reaching an astonishing 8,000 migrants by May 18th, according to Spanish reports. However, after a heavy crackdown, Spanish authorities were able to send most of the migrants home the same day, with only some migrants going back voluntarily. The arrival of 1500 minors into Ceuta made matters worse. Hundreds of them were processed in Red Cross warehouses where they received food and water.

The series of events have brought complications to the relationship between the two nations who have actually been cooperative about migrant issues in the past. Therefore, we will explore the relationship between the two nations, the EU’s response, and what the future might hold. But first, we must briefly explore the history of Western Sahara.

Western Sahara

Western Sahara was occupied by Spain in 1884 and the region was later named the Spanish Desert in 1934. Morocco annexed the region in 1975, and controls most of the region today. The Polisario Front is the indigenous Saharawi independence movement that was created in 1973. The Polisario Front declared their state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, in 1976 and is currently a member of the African union. After a guerilla war that lasted for 16 years, the UN brokered a ceasefire that ended the war. However, Morocco still needs to hold an agreed referendum on independence.

Morocco celebrates an important day in their history, which is the Green March. The Green March is the day King Hassan II had 350,000 Moroccans march into the desert, causing Spain to withdraw. This day is celebrated every year by Moroccans in memory of this historical event.

Brahim Ghali became the president of the Polisario Front in 2016 after the death of president Mohamed Abdelaziz Ezzedine. Ghali was one of the founders of the Polisario Front back in 1973 and led resistance movements against the Spanish occupation that marked the beginning of the armed fight for Western Saharan independence.

The topic of Western Sahara is a delicate and sensitive one. Therefore, the events that took place following the treatment of Brahim Ghali can be seen as unsurprising. So, how did this affect the Moroccan-Spanish relations?

Migrant crisis at Ceuta causes tension between Spain and Morocco

Moroccan-Spanish relations

The recent events that took place in Ceuta have led to diplomatic complications between Morocco and Spain. There were reports that indicated no effort was made by Moroccan authorities to stop the influx of migrants into Ceuta which angered Madrid, and many see Morocco’s actions as an act of retaliation. Following the news, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González stated that she was unaware of Morocco using the Ceuta border to pressure Spain.

After Foreign Minister González expressed her “disgust” of the incident, Morocco withdrew its ambassador, Karima Benyaich, for consultations. Morocco said it was “concerned” that the EU isn't supportive of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara following Spain’s treatment of Brahim Ghali. This is especially true since former US President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara back in December 2020. Although this event is important in relation to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel that preceded the American recognition of Morocco’s claim, neither the EU nor the UN support Morocco’s claim. In fact, Spain called for the UN to enforce its solution, while Germany criticised Trump’s move.

Morocco urged Spain to summon Brahim Ghali for alleged crimes he had committed. Therefore, a session was established on June 1st. So, how did it go?

The trial of Brahim Ghali

Brahim Ghali was scheduled to stand before the Spanish court on June 1st on accounts of terrorism, murder, genocide, and torture. However, Ghali denied all the accusations. Due to lack of evidence, the Spanish court had to deem him not guilty of all of these charges. Although the prosecution tried to convince judges of why Ghali should stay in Spain, they said that he wouldn’t pose any “flight risk”, and that he would leave once his health allowed him to.

The court session was only a preliminary hearing, which means it was merely the first step towards a possible trial and we are waiting on further news.

Migrant crisis at Ceuta in Spain and the EU's response

The EU's reaction

The EU showed solidarity with Spain and said that it would not be “intimidated” by anyone on migration issues. Margaritis Schinas, EU commissioner for European Way of Life, stated that since Ceuta is part of Europe, and since the border is also European, the issue affects all of Europe. In addition, he vowed that Europe would not be a “victim” of political pressure. He asserted that the EU cannot be intimidated by anyone on the migration issue, saying that other “third countries” have tried to do that before, even going as far as naming Turkey.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen also said that the EU stands in solidarity with Ceuta and Spain. She restated that the EU needs to find a common solution for migration management, as well as highlighting the importance of creating a strong, trustworthy, and cooperative partnership with Morocco.

Ylva Johansson, EU commissioner for Home Affairs urged Morocco to stop all “irregular departures” from Morocco. She added that all of those who “have no right to stay” should be returned. Other members of the EU have said that the situation is “worrying” and urged for better cooperation on migration issues.

What does the future hold?

This migration crisis proved to be one of the worst crises in recent times. It raised tensions that affected diplomatic relations between Morocco and Spain, caused deaths and injuries among migrants, created a dilemma surrounding minor migrants, and brought the sensitive topic of Western Sahara into the mix.

Whether or not Brahim Ghali will be tried, whether minors will be returned to Morocco, or what Spanish-Moroccan future relations will look like still remain unclear. However, most of the migration crisis seems to be under control since most were sent back to Morocco. What happens following this is crucial to Morocco, Spain, and the EU. All parties may consider more cooperation that is built on trust and partnership in order to build a migration management strategy. Morocco will probably have more talks with the EU about its sovereignty over Western Sahara to affirm its claim, while the Polisario will hold their position on the issue.

Although Morocco and Spain traded accusations, they are still strong economic partners, as well as migratory partners. Morocco is also an economic and migratory partner of other EU states. Therefore, we can expect potential efforts from all sides to try and fix this issue, but we can’t know for sure just yet.

For more insights into events happening abroad, head to our dedicated Foreign Affairs section.

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