Ghali, Ceuta: Spain and Morocco Navigate Fraught but Essential Partnership

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Ice is quickly thickening on Morocco-Spain relations as the two neighbors increasingly find themselves in a horrifyingly tight spot. This week’s news of a mass irregular migration attempt in Ceuta adds to the unsettled Morocco-Spain disagreement over the hospitalization of Brahim Ghali. Madrid and Rabat are left to navigate a foundering but essential relationship.  

News of the arrival of thousands of irregular migrants in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Northern Morocco has brought to the fore the growing Madrid-Rabat rift. There have been suggestions that the unprecedented arrivals of migrants in the Spanish enclave might have been a way of warning Spain against further upsetting Morocco. 

The idea is that Morocco has been exasperated by Spain’s behavior on a number of topics it deems central to its interests and may have relaxed its traditionally tight border control, allowing thousands of migrants to flood Ceuta. 

But the Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, temporarily thrashed such an interpretation of the Ceuta episode, saying that there is no connection between the overwhelming arrival of irregular migrants and the diplomatic disagreement between Rabat and Madrid.

In an interview late Monday night on Spanish radio Cadena Ser, Gonzalez Laya argued Morocco could not have deliberately “endangered” the lives of at least 6000 people, including women and minors, by sending them off to the sea to overwhelm Spanish civil guards in Ceuta. 

“I do not believe that the lives of minors can be endangered in the sea, as we have seen in recent hours in Ceuta,” she said. 

Read also: Morocco, Spain Relations Muddled by Media and Irregular Migration

Citing unnamed high-ranking Moroccan officials who on Monday “assured” their Spanish counterparts that this week’s unprecedented arrival of irregular migrants in Ceuta “was not the result of the disagreement” between the two countries, Gonzalez Laya expressed her wish to see the two neighbors resolve their divergences and rescue their strong relationship.

However, the Spanish FM’s words proved ultimately insufficient to calm the nerves of the Spanish media and a political class that seems unrectifiably convinced that what is happening in Ceuta is Morocco’s way of blackmailing Spain and the EU. 

That assessment seems to have become the dominant sentiment across Europe, where fear of invasive migrants is perhaps the only universally held conviction among politicians. 

“Europe will let no one intimidate her,” said Margaritis Schinas, the vice-president of the EU Commission, in reference to Ceuta and Morocco’s supposed use of migration control to blackmail the EU. 

This was grave enough from the Moroccan perspective. For Rabat, the sight of European politicians using one incident of irregular migrants flooding Spain to whitewash all Morocco’s efforts to consistently curb successful migration attempts is insufferable.

But even more eye-brow raising comments came when some in the Spanish media suggested that Algeria has been a more reliable partner than Morocco on the migration management front. This, in many ways, read more like a desire to blackmail Morocco in return. 

The argument seems to be that since Morocco cannot do the EU’s migration policeman job without whining or asking for colossal financial reward, Brussels will – or may – turn to Algeria who seems happy to help without asking for preferential treatment. 

If past EU-Morocco and Morocco-Spain disagreements are any indication, politicians on both sides will ultimately attempt to calm the situation by disavowing some of the things that have been said or suggestively murmured in recent days and weeks. 

Read also: Pedro Sanchez Makes U-Turn on Western Sahara, Threatens Rabat-Madrid Ties

However you slice it, however, Madrid and Rabat have entered the turbulence zone they had long managed to avoid in their various political disagreements in the past five years. Compounding this perception of more turbulence ahead is yesterday’s scene of the Spanish police firing on Moroccan migrants and injuring two. 

“Have the Spanish police lost their mind?” is how many Moroccans reacted to the news on social media. While Moroccan officials will surely be more diplomatic and accommodating when assessing that particular episode, the sentiment of an over-stepping Spanish political class is lingering, pervasive in most policy circles in Rabat. And so, the protracted spat between the two neighbors seems dangerously close to a point of no return.   

Although long described as “traditional” or “special” allies, Morocco and Spain recently hit an additional wall in their relations after Rabat expressed its displeasure over a number of Spanish moves it deemed inappropriate for a reliable ally. 

In November, 2020, Spain was apparently dismayed at the US’ decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Not only did the European country’s official reaction to the news suggest it did not approve of the development, but a number of senior politicians who were part of the government coalition, went on record to urge the then-newly elected President Joe Biden to reverse his predecessor’s Western Sahara proclamation.

Prior to this, Rabat had been long alarmed by Madrid’s lack of reciprocity on the Sahara question. In late November 2020, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias slayed years of UN resolutions when he called for a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara. 

While Madrid was swift in distancing itself from Iglesias’s comments, the fact that a then-prominent member of the government coalition in Spain could make such statements was enough to alarm many in Morocco. 

As Rabat saw it, the pro-Polisario rhetoric of major Spanish politicians like Iglesias is perhaps the most eloquent indication that Madrid is very far from being as committed to Morocco’s territorial integrity as Morocco is to Spain’s. 

On the Catalan question, for instance, Morocco supports Spain’s territorial integrity. More critically, perhaps, the North African country even declined an opportunity to support Catalan separatist leaders when they requested to travel to Rabat to meet with senior Moroccan officials.  

Read also: Brahim Ghali: Morocco Accuses Spain Of Being Bad Partner, Neighbor

But the latest and most striking indication of the souring relations came on April 18, when news emerged of the hospitalization of Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, in Spain. Moroccan intelligence subsequently established that the Polisario chief traveled to Spain under a fake Algerian identity and that the trip was the culmination of “highest level” coordination between Algeria and Spain.

As tensions grew after Morocco expressed its “exasperation” with Spain for hosting Ghali, Madrid attempted to reassure Rabat by declaring that its decision to welcome the Polisario leader was mainly motivated by “humanitarian reasons.” 

Even as Morocco insisted that Spain provide a “satisfactory” explanation for such a “surprising” and “unilateral move” unbefitting of a close ally, Spain shirked the barrage of Moroccan demands. Madrid repeatedly suggested that a “humanitarian” decision should not jeopardize the deep and essential Morocco-Spain ties.

The Spanish FM mobilized the same language on Monday when dismissing claims linking the event in Ceuta to the Ghali episode. “I do not believe that this [the sudden arrival of 8000 migrants in Ceuta] could be a response to a humanitarian action [the hospitalization of Ghali in Spain],” she said.

Hosting Ghali “was, and it is simply, a humanitarian issue, a humanitarian response to a request for humanitarian aid from a person who was in a very, very fragile health situation.” 

According to the Spanish Ministry of the Interior, of the 8,000 irregular migrants reported to have reached Ceuta on Monday from northern Morocco, Spain has already repatriated approximately 4,000 to Morocco. The country plans to send back more people, with only unaccompanied minors expected to stay in Spain under the care of state-sponsored shelters.  

The European country has also increased the number of civil guards and national police in the Ceuta and Melilla enclaves to prevent a repeat of what many Spanish media have described as a fiasco.

Read also: Ceuta, Melilla and Morocco’s Displeasure with Spain on Western Sahara

Meanwhile, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Karima Benyaich, Morocco’s ambassador in Spain, for clarifications. Madrid is widely expected to frame this as an ordinary diplomatic event. 

But the fragile state of affairs between Morocco and Spain means many observers will see the move as another expression of the increasingly irreconcilable differences between the two countries. 

Hours before the Spanish ministry summoned her, Benyaich was adamant about Morocco’s expectations of Spain amid what she described as visible signs of a lack of reciprocity. “There are acts that have consequences and must be assumed,” Benyaich said of Spain’s breach of mutual trust. “There are attitudes that cannot be accepted.” More poignant than Benyaich’s feisty comments, however, was Rabat’s decision to recall its ambassador hours after the Spanish ministry summoned her.

Earlier this week, Mohamed Dkhissi, the central director of Morocco’s Judicial Police, appeared to make the same points as Benyaich when commenting on Morocco’s relationship with EU countries. The North African country is no one’s vassal, Dkhisi argued. “Morocco, which is a regional power with its position at the international level and at the African level, is not the servant of any country.” 

This has been the gist of Morocco’s rhetoric in the past few years, and it is undoubtedly what Rabat will make sure to remind Spain of when negotiations start in the coming days and weeks to salvage their massively bruised friendship. 

Amid amicable reassurances and serious warnings from both Morocco and Spain, their commitment to some aspects of their cooperation appears to be unaffected despite lingering divergences. It now remains to be seen how the two neighbors will navigate their differences to satisfy each other’s expectations or requirements of a reliable partnership.

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