Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla: Spain's unequal sovereignty disputes

Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla: Spain's unequal sovereignty disputes
Comment: Spain cannot call to regain its sovereignty over Gibraltar, while in parallel refusing Morocco's legitimate right to its sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, writes Samir Bennis
6 min read
28 Jun, 2016
The border fence that limits Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla [Getty]

Immediately after the British voted to leave the European Union, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo said in a radio show on Friday that his country is closer than ever to recovering its sovereignty over Gibraltar.

The Spanish official said that Brexit offers new possibilities for tabling the proposal of co-sovereignty between Spain and the UK, over Gibraltar. For Spanish officials, this step would pave the way to allowing their country to fully recover its sovereignty over the territory.

Moroccan social media users have commented prolifically on the topic, with many accusing Spain of double standards - reclaiming sovereignty of Gibraltar while clinging to sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla, as well as several islands just off the Moroccan mainland.

This is not the first time that the Spanish government has urged its British counterpart to open a dialogue on this territorial dispute. Spanish foreign policy has long considered the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht - by virtue of which Spain ceded its sovereignty of Gibraltar - as obsolete. But unlike the government of former Prime Minister Zapatero, Mariano Rajoy intends to open a dialogue with the UK without including the people of the Rock in the negotiations.

From a legal point of view, the Spanish position on the question of Gibraltar is stronger than the Moroccan position on Ceuta and Melilla. Gibraltar is considered a "non-self-governing territory" by the United Nations, and thus is subject to decolonisation, while Ceuta and Melilla are not included on the list of the United Nations non-self-governing territories. For this reason, Spanish officials have dismissed all attempts by the Moroccan government over the past 50 years to open a dialogue on the future of the two enclaves.

To understand why these two Moroccan cities are not included on the list, we must go back to the 1960s, specifically to the so-called "Barajas Spirit". On July 6 1963, the late King Hassan II and General Franco met in Madrid's Barajas airport to address their pending territorial disputes. The agreement that came of this meeting is known as the "Espiritu de Barajas".

Under this agreement, Morocco agreed to separate the issue of Ceuta and Melilla from the other territorial disagreements pitting the two countries against each another in the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee, known as the 4th Committee.

This strategy was cleverly exploited by the Spanish leaders and the situation was compounded by the lack of a firm commitment from Morocco in bringing this dispute to the UN at a time when the question of Gibraltar was the order of the day. It deprived Morocco of the historic chance to register Ceuta and Melilla on the list of non-self-governing territories, which the colonial powers were set to decolonise. In addition, Morocco then refrained from bringing forward the dispute over the two enclaves until 1974.

Spanish authorities continue to even deny the existence of a dispute over the cities

In the early 1960s and throughout the 70s, what mattered most to Moroccan diplomacy was its recovery of the Moroccan territories in the south. These included Sidi Ifni, which was reinstated to Morocco's sovereignty under the Agreement of January 4 1969, and the Western Sahara, recovered following the Green March on November 6 1975.

Spain took advantage of this miscalculation of Moroccan diplomacy to prevent both Ceuta and Melilla from being included on the list of the UN 4th Committee. Presently, while the question of Gibraltar is always discussed during the deliberations of the Fourth Committee held in October of each year, the question of Ceuta and Melilla remains a strictly bilateral issue between Morocco and Spain.

However, Morocco has always highlighted the parallel between the two issues, arguing that Spain cannot claim to regain its sovereignty over Gibraltar while refusing the legitimate right of Morocco to regain its sovereignty over the two enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

In 1987, after an audience granted to Spanish Minister of the Interior José Barrionuevo, the late King Hassan II handed him a letter addressed to Spanish King Juan Carlos. In the letter, Hassan II proposed the creation a Reflection Task Force (Celulle de Reflexion) to address the future status of Ceuta and Melilla. The Spanish government was quick to respond. On January 24 1987, it issued a statement emphasising that, "Ceuta and Melilla are two Spanish cities and will remain so, so that the creation of an entity of this kind cannot be justified."

Since that day, and despite Morocco's attempts to push the Spanish authorities to open a dialogue on the future of the two enclaves, Madrid has dismissed Moroccan claims as unfounded. Moreover, Spanish authorities continue to even deny the existence of a dispute over the cities.

But despite the refusal of Spanish authorities to question the character of the two enclaves and open a dialogue with Rabat, Morocco has many arguments to demonstrate the merits of its position and show that the solution of the question of Gibraltar inevitably has implications for resolving the territorial conflict over Ceuta and Melilla.

Morocco has many arguments demonstrating the parallels between Ceuta and Melilla and Gibraltar. For instance, both Gibraltar and the Spanish enclaves were primarily military bases. Both issues arose from inequitable treaties imposed by occupying powers. Also, there is no history of attachment of the occupying powers to their respective enclaves.

Many observers point out that it is incongruent for Spain to claim its sovereignty over Gibraltar while continuing to occupy the Moroccan cities of Ceuta and Melilla and nearby islands

In their books, two former Spanish diplomats Máximo Cajal and Alfonso de la Serna argue that the treaties relied on by the Spanish authorities to justify their sovereignty over both enclaves have no legal or moral value, as they were signed under duress and at a time when Morocco was in a position of weakness.

In addition, in both cases the enclaves are in the natural territory of a foreign country, thus constituting an obstacle to continuity and territorial integrity, not to mention that the three territories are economically dependent on their hinterlands.

Moreover, many observers are of the opinion that Spain cannot continue to apply a policy of double standards, adding that regardless of the legal status of enclaves of Ceuta, Melilla, and Gibraltar, it is incongruent for Spain to claim its sovereignty over Gibraltar while continuing to occupy the Moroccan cities of Ceuta and Melilla and nearby islands.

I do not think the Spanish government will insist on opening their front with the British government in the near future.

Spanish politicians know perfectly well that the British will never transfer their sovereignty over the territory without consulting Gibraltar's 33,000 inhabitants. Spain is also aware that the question of Gibraltar is inherently related to the question of Ceuta and Melilla, and that any potential return of Gibraltar to Spain would mean opening a dialogue with Morocco over the future of these two enclaves.

The Spanish Minister's statement was a mere attempt by his Popular Party to appeal to a segment of chauvinistic Spanish voters in the run up to the legislative elections held on June 26. 

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a PhD in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil.

He has published more than 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News and lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.