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Why is Morocco Picking a Fight with Spain?

6 minute read
Andrés Cala / Madrid

It was the images of empty food markets on the news, and reporters’ overblown warnings of possible shortages, that told Spaniards on Thursday that their nation’s five-century dispute with Morocco over the sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla, two enclaves on the Mediterranean coast, had reignited. In the worst diplomatic spat between the two countries in almost a decade, Moroccan activists were blocking food imports into one of the enclaves and promising more action to come.

The Spanish government and the press were appalled, not so much at the protest, but that it had taken place after King Juan Carlos himself had stepped in to try to calm tensions that had been boiling over for days. For many in Spain, the snub was yet another in a series of signs that the nation doesn’t demand the respect it once did — and that its status as a global player is crumbling.

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This most recent flare-up in the sovereignty dispute started a month ago, when Morocco’s foreign affairs ministry released a statement accusing Spanish authorities of beating five Moroccans who were trying to legally cross Europe’s southernmost border through what Rabat calls the “occupied” enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Spain said it would investigate the allegations, but unsatisfied with the response, Morocco put out four more accusatory statements, including one calling Spanish police “racist.”

That’s when the government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero asked Spain’s king to intervene, a rare request considering diplomacy is usually the domain of politicians. And by Aug. 11, after Juan Carlos called Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, it seemed the issue had been put to rest.

But the following morning, Morocco escalated the dispute when two government-aligned organizations prevented vehicles carrying fish and other staples from crossing the border into Melilla. The blockade lasted only one day, but the Moroccan activists promised to extend the blockade to construction materials next week.

On Saturday, Spain announced that it would send Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba to Rabat on Aug. 23 — a move criticized by some in Spain as too little too late. Morocco’s impudence isn’t just a matter of wounded pride for Spain — it’s also about a loss of power. Added to a series of diplomatic setbacks involving the European Union, Latin America, and Northern Africa, Morocco’s lack of reverence is exposing an uncomfortable new reality for Spain, one in which it no longer holds a top spot in world affairs.

Not long ago, Spain was a power to be reckoned with. Its banks and multinationals were expanding aggressively around the world. The government was orchestrating the E.U.’s relations with Latin America and, to some extent, Northern Africa. In Europe, its social and energy policies were paradigms, its prosperity and development an example to follow.

But the financial crisis that has sent Spain’s economy into intensive care and its government into internal disarray has sapped much of the nation’s clout. “Three years ago, Spain was a model in Europe,” says Gustavo Palomares, political scientist and a diplomacy teacher in the Spanish government’s foreign affairs school. “But what happened in the economic realm is similar to what is happening diplomatically. We thought our pillars were solid, but history has proven they weren’t, and we have lived beyond our means.”

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Indeed, Spain’s turn at the E.U. presidency in the first half of this year was discreet at best. It had planned three headline summits: one with U.S. President Barack Obama, another with Mediterranean heads of state, and a third with Latin American leaders. But only the Lat Am summit happened — and went virtually unnoticed. The other two were cancelled for a number of reasons but among them, analysts say, was the perception that Spain was not ready to catalyze its own ambitious agenda. “Internationally, the perception is that Spain does not have the economic weight or the credibility to play the diplomatic role it wants to,” Palomares says.

In Latin American issues too, Spain has disappointed, among others, the Obama Administration, which initially sought the help of Zapatero’s socialist government for backdoor diplomacy with Venezuela and Cuba. But no longer, says Palomares, who was involved in the preliminary contacts. Spain also invested much of its diplomatic capital to make Barcelona the headquarters of the Union for the Mediterranean, which brings together 43 countries. But the first summit to officially launch the organization in June was cancelled after Spain couldn’t convince Arab countries to sit in the same forum with Israel.

Perhaps the biggest victim of Spain’s diplomatic inertia is North Africa, which outside Europe is seen as the country’s most important strategic priority, both economically and politically. Over the past few years Spain has set out to improve E.U. relations with the region, especially Morocco, but results haven’t followed, Palomares says. Case in point is the dispute over Ceuta and Melilla. Spain has controlled the enclaves for five hundred years, but still Morocco recurrently pressures Madrid on their sovereignty, often by triggering diplomatic incidents. In 2002, Morocco went so far as to send soldiers to a tiny uninhabited island off Ceuta — after negotiations failed, Spain deployed an elite force to retake the island without any resistance.

This time, though, Morocco is putting up a fight. The timing of the food blockade illustrates Rabat’s intention to take advantage of a weakened Spain, analysts say. “Vultures swarm when they see weakness, and that is what’s happening to Spain,” says Vicente Palacios, sub-director of the Spanish Foreign Policy Observatory, a research center of a left-leaning think tank close to the government. Spain’s relations with Morocco will likely return to normal soon — but its fading diplomatic luster is a problem that’s sure to linger.

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