More trouble in the Mediterranean

Earlier this year we looked at the changing situation of Gibraltar, Britain’s colony at the southern tip of Spain, which may be the only place to have done well out of Brexit. This week the focus has shifted to the corresponding possession on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Spanish city of Ceuta.

Ceuta, like the similarly-sized city of Melilla, further east, was seized by the Europeans in the fifteenth century. Although surrounded by Morocco, it is administered as an integral part of Spain and therefore of the European Union. That gives the EU a land border with Africa, which understandably acts as a magnet for Africans seeking a better life in Europe. Spain invests a lot of resources in security personnel and a very large fence to keep them out.

Morocco has generally co-operated in that effort. But on Monday and Tuesday it chose to turn a blind eye when some 8,000 people managed to swim or wade around the fence and make it into Ceuta. Spain has now sent most of them back, but the Spanish government is clearly aware that it may have a long-term problem on its hands.

The efforts of the EU to close its doors on the poor and the persecuted of Africa and the Middle East, most of them from countries that have been devastated over the years by European colonialism, are deplorable. And it’s particularly hard to summon up sympathy for Spain given its constant complaints about Gibraltar, when it’s guilty of the same imperialist caper on the opposite side of the strait.

(The official Spanish response is that Gibraltar is different because it’s just a colony, whereas Ceuta and Melilla are officially part of Spain. But if Britain were to explicitly annex Gibraltar and proclaim that it was an integral part of the United Kingdom, no-one would expect Spain to be at all impressed.)

On this occasion, however, the immediate cause of the trouble puts Morocco in the wrong. Its sudden toleration of illicit border crossers was apparently in retaliation for Spain’s decision last month to admit Brahim Ghali, the titular president of Western Sahara, to Spain for medical treatment after he contracted Covid-19.

Morocco occupies most of Western Sahara and claims it as (yes, that’s right) an “integral part” of its territory. Ghali’s Polisario Front claims it as an independent nation, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, but it controls only a strip of desert along its eastern border. For practical purposes Ghali’s government is based in refugee camps in Algeria.

Most countries (including Spain) maintain a degree of neutrality in the dispute, acknowledging the territory’s right to self-determination but holding off from explicit recognition of either side’s claims. The exception is Donald Trump’s United States, which last December announced support for the Moroccan position in return for Morocco’s agreement to a treaty with Israel. (Something that Israel’s recent behavior has made increasingly unpopular in Morocco.)

Fresh from that diplomatic triumph, the Moroccan government is turning the screws on Spain to try to discourage anything that might look like support for the Western Saharans. This week is just a small taste of the chaos it could cause in Ceuta and Melilla if it really tried – it could, for example, not just let Moroccans cross the border but refuse to accept them back when Spain expelled them.

Morocco also benefits economically, of course, from having the EU on its doorstep; at some level it would probably be quite alarmed if Spain offered to give back the enclaves. But the mythology of national “prestige” is such that there’s no likelihood of that, however much sense it would make – especially for a left-wing Spanish government already under attack from the nationalists to its right.

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