30th Jul 2021


Morocco vs Spain: why it matters for the EU

  • This time, Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen, Josep Borrell, Ylva Johansson and many more immediately gave the same message: Ceuta's border with Morocco is the EU's border (Photo: EUobserver)

Ceuta, a small Spanish city on the North African coast, was the setting for the latest episode in the bilateral drift between Madrid and Rabat. Brussels, almost 2,000 kilometres north, is a less visible but equally important arena where the two countries are carrying on the fight.

On 17 June, thousands of mainly Moroccan migrants crossed the border with Ceuta, taking advantage of an apparent relaxation of controls by Moroccan security forces.

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Two weeks earlier, the Moroccan foreign affairs minister, Nasser Bourita, had warned Spain that cooperation was at risk because of Spanish policies on the Western Sahara.

Following a well-known script, Rabat expressed its disappointment by applying migration pressure.

As the crisis in Ceuta unfolded, Spain resolutely requested Brussels' support. And it got it.

Aware of the many elements that irritate the bilateral relationship, Spain has sought Europeanisation as part of a strategy to mitigate the risks of conflict escalation.

Bringing bilateral relations with Morocco under the European umbrella should infuse some positive energy into this sensitive relationship while also reducing Rabat's appetite for confrontation with Spain – as it would mean confronting the EU as a whole.

On the bilateral front, Spain has aimed at intensifying and diversifying cooperation at all levels.

The end goal is to create a "colchón" (mattress) of interests, as it is often called in Spain, that raises the cost of conflict and buffers the tensions that inevitably resurface from time to time. The evolution of the current crisis will determine whether this dual strategy pays off.

Meanwhile, Rabat is looking to Brussels for understanding. Moroccan officials insist that they have no problems with the EU but merely with one member state and claim that this is a purely political crisis, downplaying its migration component. Why? Morocco underestimated the reputational costs of the incidents in Ceuta.

The images of Moroccan families and hopeless young kids risking their lives do not fit with the narrative of Morocco as a dynamic economy, with massive investment projects to connect Europe with Africa.

The idea that a country often portrayed as an exemplary partner in Brussels circles was apparently determined to weaponise migration raised alarms across European decision-making circles.

Before this latest crisis erupted, the EU already felt surrounded by a ring of fires. But few in Brussels expected Morocco to spark a new one.

The memories of the chaotic images of February 2020 on the Greek–Turkish border are still fresh in European minds, particularly among the senior leadership of the EU institutions that had to deal with the situation a few weeks after assuming their posts.

This time, Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen, Josep Borrell, Ylva Johansson and many more immediately gave the same message: Ceuta's border with Morocco is the EU's border. Margaritis Schinas went even further, warning that "nobody can intimidate or blackmail the European Union".

Morocco vs Spain, plus Germany

As for the member states, the fact that Morocco is clashing not only with Spain but with Germany too did not help Rabat gather support among friendly countries such as France.

What does Morocco want from Spain? Nothing less than a policy shift on the Western Sahara. Rabat considers that the Spanish government is biased in support of the Polisario, with the hospital treatment in Spain of Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, offering the final proof.

Yet, Spain's policies have not significantly changed. Indeed, the supporters of Sahrawi independence might be shocked by such accusations, having traditionally regarded Spain's governmental position as subtly leaning towards Rabat.

Rather than Spanish policies, what has changed are Morocco's expectations.

The decision by former president Donald Trump to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over this disputed territory was a game-changer that has apparently empowered Morocco to challenge the status quo.

The newfound centrality of the Western Sahara on the agenda has consequences for the EU as well.

The European Court of Justice should soon issue its decision on the applicability of the EU agreements with Morocco to the Western Sahara. If the ruling fails to meet Morocco's expectations, it could trigger new tensions. The risk of this is seemingly quite high.

The EU's handling of the current bilateral crisis with Spain will therefore set some standards for future crises with a potentially European dimension. It would also be useful to draw lessons from Spain's previous experiences about what worked and what did not.

Ultimately, disincentivising conflict and mitigating the risks of escalation with Morocco should be Europe's foreign policy goal too.

Author bio

Eduard Soler Lecha is senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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