Ceuta & Melilla Stand Off – Spain´s North African Legacy

Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez,  has vowed to “restore order” as thousands of Moroccans arrived in Ceuta – provoking an unprecedented migratory crisis which briefly overwhelmed the Spanish authorities on the border.

The crisis, apparently over Morocco´s dipleasure over the hospital treatment in Spain of Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, which has been fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara for over 40 years.

Morocco’s foreign ministry issued a statement stating that they strongly disapprove of the decision to admit him – seemingly under a false identity and to add insult – without informing them.

In turn Spanish officials have been at pains not to offend Morocco – the Prime Minister calling the country “a friend” and highlighting their close collaboration on illegal immigration and terrorism.

However the relationship has some underlying thorns that from time to time prick the unwary.

We take a look at the sometimes rocky relationship between Spain and its southern neighbour – much of it shaped by Spain’s colonial past in the region.

Both Ceuta and Melilla remain sovereign Spanish territory – indeed are part of Spain and fully represented as two of the country´s 17 autonomous communities as defined by the 1978 Constitution.

They are the only two inhabited of the nine territories North African territories that remain Spanish as part of the plazas de soberanía when Spain ceded independence to Spanish Morocco in 1956.

The remaining territories are uninhabited islands off the Moroccan coast – one of which, the Isla de Perejil briefly became a flashpoint for armed conflict when it was occupied by a small group of Moroccan soldiers before surrendering to Spanish commandos in 2002.

Morocco claims sovereignty over all the plazas de soberanía territories.

The Spanish protectorate in Morocco had been established in 1912 by a treaty dividing up the Kingdom of Morocco with France – who took the lions share and Spain who took a northern slither encompassing Ceuta and Melilla.

The treaty which allowed for the kingdom of Morocco to be nominally independent – but in reality controlled by France and to a lesser extent Spain –  continued until 1956.

However Spain´s footprint in North Africa goes back much further than France´s 19th century imperialism.

Spain´s North African involvement had been in evidence for centuries – in the case of Melilla to the 15th century when the New World was partitioned between Castille and Portugal at the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and the Portuguese ceded the territory to the Catholic Monarchs of Isabella and Fernando.

Melilla then became a Castilian Presidio (fortified outpost) with a 700 man garrison which was used as a base for the many expeditions against the Barbary states of North Africa from the 16th to 19th centuries.  

Ceuta was added in 1668 when the then Portuguese territory was ceded to King Carlos II of Spain by the Treaty of Lisbon.

Border conflicts continued – occasionally flaring into full scale war as the Hispano-Moroccan War ( 1859-60).

Spanish Saraha which comprises the present Western Sahara was allocated to Spain by the 1884 Berlin Conference which divided up the African continent into spheres of European influence – otherwise known as the ” Scramble for Africa.”

Spain´s allocation was meagre by the standards of the main European powers – a reflection of the country´s diminished status following the loss of the Americas and political instability at home – indeed it would go on to lose the remainder of its non African territories in the War of 1898 with the United States.

The new Spanish colony of Spanish West Africa, included the northern coastal territory around Ceuta and Melilla, the Western Sahara and the important trading posts of Cape Juby and Ifni

Spain gave up its northern territory in 1956 with the French withdrawal – save for Ceuta and Melilla and the scattered offshore islands.

Following a series of confrontations, Spain gave up Cape Juby in 1959 and Ifni in 1969, but continued its hold over the western Sahara which was claimed by Morocco.

Spain´s attempts to hold on to the colony was undermined with the Portuguese African withdrawal following the Carnation Revolution in 1974 leaving Spain the only remaining European power in Africa.

Madrid´s weakness was further compounded when in 1975 it was powerless to oppose the “green march” that saw 300,000 unarmed Moroccans accompanied by the Moroccan Army attempt to cross into Western Sahara.

Spain capitulated and abandoned the colony in the dying weeks of Franco´s life.

Subsequently Morocco has occupied and administered around 80% of the territory and continues to claim sovereignty over all of it.

However the indigenous Sahrawi population have resisted this and seek an independent state.

Its government in exile ( in Algeria) and its armed Polisario Front, has been engaged in a long running conflict with Morocco since 1975 seeking to establish an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In 1991 the UN negotiated a ceasefire which has been in place – more or less – for the last 30 years as both sides seek diplomatic advantage.

In 2020 the United States recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara – but Spain – as well as the European Union – do not.










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