The Underbelly of the Moroccan Kingdom’s Diplomacy: Between Issues, Crises and Challenges in religion and security

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by Anis El Okbani and Irina Tsukeramn

This extract aims to shed some light on the bilateral cooperation between Spain and Morocco in the management of the Euro-African border.

Extract from Chapter VI: Morocco and the Euro-Mediteranean 

In this chapter, the Moroccans are finally warned about the importance that the French diplomatic corps attaches to the occupied city, CEUTA (SEBTA)… But not only that….

The visit of the Consul General of France in Madrid, Cédric Prieto, to the city of Ceuta (SEBTA), on August 20, 2020, took place on the day which coincides with the anniversary of the revolution of the King and the people in Morocco.

SEBTA and MELILIA, border towns between Morocco and Spain, form the only Euro-African land borders. In this respect, they have long been areas of special attention in terms of  immigration policies aimed at curbing the flow of illegal migration to the EU. Moreover, in this they constitute real laboratories in the fight against irregular migration to the EU.

Consul General Prieto is an unusual sort of diplomat. After a professional career that took him from Buenos Aires to Canberra via Rio and Paris, Cédric Prieto took up his post in Madrid in September 2016.

His diplomatic career has pursued unexpected twists and turns, starting with Prieto’s backgrouned. With a name of Chilean origin but very Lyonnais roots, speaking Japanese, he acquired consular experience and knowledge of the geopolitical issues of the position of the occupied cities in a seemingly convoluted way given the diversity of his professional experiences..

During a  meeting with him in July 2017, Cédric Prieto presented in particular the major missions entrusted to him as well as his priorities for the years to come.  The visit to Ceuta  visit was not included. Which doesn’t mean it was left off his agenda. Cédric Prieto is a professional diplomat. His agenda therefore has its secret constraints. That’s not out of ordinary in the diplomatic world. 

Ceuta and Melilla (Sebta and Melilia): Spanish cities or the last colonies in Africa? Why are Ceuta and Melilla still under Spanish occupation? 

This book recalls a long history of territorial claims by Spain, going back to  the end of the Middle Ages when the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies sought to complete the reconquest movement – Reconquista – of the Iberian Peninsula that the Muslims had invaded from 711. 

Remnants of a bygone colonial empire, the object of Moroccan claims, their geographic location has brought them back to the forefront as Europe tries to stem the tide of illegal immigration. 

Once again, the visit of Cédric Prieto, Consul General of France in Madrid to the city of Ceuta (SEBTA), on August 20, 2020, the day which coincides with the anniversary of the revolution of the king and the people in Morocco, made them return to the foreground, for the reasons declared and expressed without reservation.  The ultimate signal of that visit is that it was an unfriendly diplomatic act towards Morocco, a country ally of France. 

The timing and the comments of the French diplomat are not innocent.

The timing of the French diplomat’s visit and the remarks made to explain the reasons for his visit expose and underscore the  new agenda for French diplomacy vis-à-vis the territorial integrity of Morocco in general, and Sahara, in particular.

The consul affirms that: “France must support the government of Ceuta, because it is the gateway to Africa for France and the rest of the European countries, and it is also important that this goverment represents us and helps us understand what is happening in this part of Spain on the border with Morocco. ” And he adds: “In addition for Melilla, this land border is the only one that Europe has with Africa, which gives Ceuta a key strategic dimension from France’s perspective”.

The time of storms and turbulence for Moroccan diplomacy, which remains in a state of lethargy, is ushered in by the visit of Cédric Prieto and the revelation of his agenda. A provocation! Perhaps..

The reasons are known and for some experts, justified.

A new French agenda!

A new French agenda jeopardizes Moroccan interests and plans, even to the level of  riskin collapse of its foreign policy in the region. 

Decryption.

It is time to leave the air-conditioned rooms of the Moroccan foreign affairs ministry in Rabat or elsewhere in secret underground facilities. Seek out and read reports from credible think tanks and lobby groups, preferably American. Time to abandon the famous “ball of the lobbyists”!

Another angle of analysis, to understand the zone of turbulence that Morocco is likely to cross.

The official position related to this matters – a disclosure  which, certainly, will not please certain diplomats – is an  amateur talking point worthy of  the laymen “Tribunes”, which, nevertheless, is  supported by the statements of the official Moroccan agency MAP. This approach presumes that the Moroccan soap washes whiter and territorial integrity is under control even if not taken under decisive dominion and control of the Moroccan government. This blithe position further assumes, without evidence that our historical allies are faithful etc …

No need to remind these officials, who hide their incompetence and their immobility, so as not to take any risk, behind the royal umbrella, expecting deference to the authority of their official posts.

We take the risk of exposing them to this reading that is circulating in diplomatic circles:

“Since 1975 and the failure of the decolonization of Western Sahara, Morocco has regularly used the argument of the claim on the cities of Ceuta and Melilla to put pressure on Spain regarding the Sahara issue: after having obtained the support from Washington and Paris, Rabat is indeed trying to get its project of “regional autonomy for the southern province” endorsed by Madrid, the former colonial power, which would amount to integrating Western Sahara into Moroccan territory; for Rabat, the Spanish presence in Ceuta and Melilla is an anachronistic survival of colonialism in Africa ”. 

What a brave stand! That said, in our book, these diplomats will find information that will bolster this theoretical argument: the discussion of the defense element, as well as colorable and credible argumentation for the public assertion of this position. They will be able to explain coherently how and why Sebta and Melilia are a legal and economic exception. They will also be able to address how these cities are also an artificial anchor in Europe and the way by which Morocco can unmoor itself from the European buoy. 

Circling back to the current diplomatic awkwardness, is there a precedent to Cédric Prieto’s visit? The answer is: yes, with a notable difference. 

King Juan Carlos: A State Visit to SEBTA and MELILLA 

Morocco-Spain: A military confrontation avoided thanks to the intervention of the American diplomacy. 

The tension reached its peak in July 2002: Morocco decided to occupy the islet of El Perejil, a small uninhabited rock located west of Ceuta. The Spanish response was quick to escalate and to retake it. 

European municipalities in Africa? 

Let’s examine the case of SEBTA and MELILIA: A legal and economic exception.

The territories of Ceuta (19 km2) and Melilla (12.3 km2) are an integral part of Spanish territory according to the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and this was confirmed by the status of autonomous cities acquired in 1995. They are practically on par with the autonomous communities. 

In addition, the two cities benefit from the status of “free ports”. The entry of Spain into the European Union (EU) in 1986, the “territories of Spanish sovereignty” were integrated into the community as a whole.

Sebta and Melilia were allowed to post a sign at their border indicating the  “commune of Europe”. Their special free port regime had to be adapted to European rules … 

However, in order to preserve their character as free ports, the two cities are excluded from the Customs Union and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). They are also exempt from the application of VAT. On the other hand, they benefit from European structural funds which have played an essential role in their economic development.

Spain’s accession to the Schengen agreements in 1991 also had consequences for the two autonomous cities, a derogation is granted to Moroccans from the region of the two cities (a development explained in our book).

The Moroccan claim of the two cities is still relevant in official statements and for political actors, but otherwise has no real force behind it.

SEBTA and Melilia’s “Hispanicness” and their inhabitants are no longer in question, since the visit of King Juan Carlos, even the Muslim population is also showing a preference for this option for various reasons. Other challenges are yet to be overcome (Detailed in our book).

SEBTA and MELILIA: advantages or risks for Europe? 

The two cities SEBTA and MELILIA constitute a European presence in the center of Morocco, which has laid claim to them. Geopolitical assets for Europe, these enclaves are also a security, migration, fiscal and political challenge for the Mediterranean. 

Additionally, they are a potential future epicenter of identity clashes. These two towns have the particularity of having remained under Spanish administration since the 17th century. Therefore, they are an asset for Spain. 

Its increased presence in the Strait of Gibraltar is a strategic advantage for Europe. However, “this asset and advantage” for these windows on the Mediterranean is subject to risks (migration challenge, illegal trafficking and smuggling problems ,.) 

However, SEBTA, an asset by virtue of its position, controls the Strait of Gibraltar and therefore has direct access to strategic international trade routes. The management of its external borders and its neighborly relations is today of vital order for the EU. 

We have mentioned some variables, in this excerpt, which relate to risks and risk management for Moroccan-Spanish relations (mainly illegal immigration issues, visits by Spanish leaders to SEBTA and MELILIA, real or virtual fear of ‘Islam, Islamism and Terrorism …). Sensitive issues for Morocco and Spain.

We also raised the issue of the Strait of Gibraltar, a geostrategic issue for Europe and more for many other international players.

For Morocco, the stakes are elsewhere: failing to obtain the support against Algeria (protector of the Polisario) for the Sahara autonomy project, it is necessary to acquire that of Spain, because these two countries are those most concerned by the issue, while preserving French support.

In this game of balance of power, Morocco would be in a strong position and could aspire to credibility accredited by the United States and other influential countries at the level of the United Nations.

In the relations between Spain and Morocco, we can observe that the foreign policy of the EU has many strengths and plays a crucial role in achieving this balance. In this context, the visit by Cedric Pietro presents somewhat of an enigma. 

A simple provocation, from a diplomat with multiple connections, cannot be ruled out, which could argue for the lack of reaction from Moroccan diplomacy. This matter will be further examined in the book.

And for Morocco, is there an opportunity to become a virtual part of the EU?

The question of the two occupied cities raises additional questions concerning  Moroccan claims, as well as the identity issue of the national belonging of these cities. Morocco, supported by the African Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League, claims the enclaves and until now has used the approach of putting pressure on Spain and the EU via NGOs and lobbies. But another option is possible.

A Morocco-Spain collaboration: enclaves becoming bridges over the Mediterranean?

That possibility is the prospect of the Moroccan-Spanish cooperation. Indeed, far from obsessisng with the  identity and territorial issues as anyone would have the right to expect, Moroccan and Spanish leaders have chosen to face the challenges and dangers posed by these enclaves.

By offering Morocco advanced status on October 13, 2008 and a ‘road map’ which would allow it, in the years to come, to deepen its relations with the EU and to reach high levels of integration into the EU. EU, without becoming a member, is Morocco being offered an opportunity to become a virtual part of the EU?

Our sources estimate that the Casablanca attacks of May 16, 2003 and those in Madrid of March 11, 2004 brought together the leaders of the two countries on the issues of the fight against terrorism and the control of illegal immigration., which has consequently led to integration on many other issues.

Islam, a risky religion?

The weight of Islam (and especially Islamism) and of history in the perception of immigration, but also the fears and the security issues of the Muslim presence in Europe, is the subject of several theses (see development in our book).

King Juan Carlos: A State Visit to SEBTA and MELILIA

All Spanish heads of government have avoided any official travel to these cities, except for the ex-prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who visited in January 2006. Rabat called the visit a provocation. For his part, King Juan Carlos broke this unwritten law in 2007 by carrying out a state visit to the two cities, during which he affirmed his political will to definitively integrate SEBTA and MELILIA, into the Spanish national territory, even at the cost of military intervention, according to our sources (Our book).

King Juan Carlos: flight, expulsion or exile? The choice of exile in Abu Dhabi is not accidental.

After his exile from Spain, ex-King Juan Carlos chose to live in the United Arab Emirates. The choice of this destination is not accidental (see explanation in our book). The Royal House of Spain announced in a brief statement on August 17, 2020 that the former monarch is in Abu Dhabi. His choice was unanimously criticized and called “The worst possible destination”. How could anyone have imagined, that the monarch who led Spain from the Franco dictatorship to the parliamentary monarchy, the former King of Spain Juan Carlos I, would be going into exile in the face of suspicions of corruption weighing upon him. Indeed, pursued by suspicions of corruption arising from the statements of a former mistress, the ex-monarch who had abdicated in 2014, announced his departure in order to facilitate his son Felipe VI’s in  “the exercise of his functions”.

The judiciary is seeking to determine whether the ex-king can be investigated in a case of alleged corruption in the award of a high-speed train contract by Saudi Arabia. However, 75 former Spanish ministers, regional presidents and senior officials signed a manifesto to defend his presumption of innocence, recalling his legacy. 

In any case, according to our sources, the choice of exile in Abu Dhabi is not accidental. Better yet, Yossi Cohen’s hand cannot be ruled out. The head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, visited the UAE for security talks, days after the two countries decided to establish diplomatic ties. The security of the Spanish sovereign and his state secrets cannot be ignored.

The first visit, since his accession to the throne in 1975, triggered an outcry in Morocco, which claims these two Lilliputian territories under Spanish sovereignty since the 16th century. Shocked by this controversial and unprecedented visit by Juan Carlos, King Mohamed VI recalled his ambassador Omar Azziman for consultation, qualifying as “regrettable” this trip to two cities considered “occupied”. 

For their part, the Moroccan parliamentarians had asked “for the need to review bilateral relations in the light of the latest developments”. Remember that the Spanish leaders carefully avoid the trip, because of its sensitive nature. 

So when Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero went there in January 2006, Rabat called the visit a provocation. The last visit of a Spanish monarch to these two enclaves located on the northwest coast of Morocco dates back to 1927, when Juan Carlos’ grandfather, Alfonso XIII, visited them. 

In Conclusion:

This extract aims to shed some light on the bilateral cooperation between Spain and Morocco in the management of the Euro-African border. The analysis has a dimension of prevention and management of risks of upheavals.

To understand the sources of the risks in the Strait of Gibraltar, we should first try to understand the issues that arouse and provoke the competition of the  actors in the region.

The extract also addresses the modalities by which the European Union and its member states make the externalization of border control in Morocco sustainable.

It also tries to show the central role of the two occupied cities in the policies of screening candidates for immigration to Europe. Morocco is playing a type of gendarme!

Finally, we highlight the importance of certain geopolitical elements (identity, religion, demography, etc.), which can, in a context of turbulence, modify the concept of balance and the rules of the game. A return to the classics of the Barcelona process is recommended.

Morocco is the object of a reading which underlines its paradoxical character: its “revolutionary potential” is considerable, and this since independence, even if it has always been neutralized by salutary reforms. Some, initiated by the King, come under the “BARAKA”!

Indeed we note that in any case, the EU won a victory over the American project of the Greater Middle East since Morocco was also the field of experimentation of this project, which failed to materialize.  Again, we witness the famous Moroccan “exception”!

However, according to our sources, it would seem that all scenarios are still possible for the two cities, from conflagration to increased cooperation (see details in our book).

We have mentioned some variables, in this excerpt, which relate to the risks and risk management for Moroccan-Spanish relations (mainly illegal immigration issues, visits by Spanish leaders to SEBTA and MELILIA, real or virtual fear of ‘Islam, Islamism and Terrorism …).

These are sensitive issues for Morocco and Spain. We also raised the issue of the Strait of Gibraltar, a geostrategic issue for Europe and more for many other international players. For Morocco, the stakes are elsewhere: failing to obtain the support of Algeria (protector of the Polisario) for the Sahara autonomy project, it is necessary to acquire that of Spain, because these two countries are those most concerned by the issue, while preserving French support.

In this game of balance of power, Morocco would be in a strong position and could aspire to credibility accredited by the United States and other influential countries at the level of the United Nations. 

In the relations between Spain and Morocco, we can notice that the foreign policy of the EU has many strengths and plays a crucial role in achieving this balance. These are the lines of thought and analysis to which it seemed useful and important to us to devote our further research.