Morocco the apparent winner after migrant skirmish with Spain

The recent events in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta may have suggested otherwise, but (most of) Africa does not yearn to come to Europe, writes Oriol Puig.

Morocco appears to have triumphed in its diplomatic joust with Spain, more than two weeks after the North African country opened its borders for thousands of migrants to cross into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

Widely seen as a show of strength by Rabat, the border manoeuvres in the week beginning May 17 were apparently not about migration, but politics.

Morocco is thought to have acted in response to Spain providing hospital treatment for Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement, the Polisario Front, who was suffering from COVID–19.

The Spanish authorities insist that Ghali’s admission was made on humanitarian grounds and not as a gesture of political support for the Saharwi independence movement.

Morocco insists that Western Sahara is an integral part of its territory.

Ghali attended a high court hearing remotely from hospital on 1 June, which threw out an attempt to charge him with war crimes, and left Spain for Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front, the following day.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has described Morocco’s actions in appearing to relax border controls as an assault on national borders.

“It is not acceptable for a government to say that we will attack the borders, that we will open up the borders to let in 10,000 migrants in less than 48 hours […] because of foreign policy disagreements,” he said.

Yet despite Spain’s protestations, the EU’s diplomatic arm, the external action service, made no reference to the dispute in a statement earlier this week, instead praising the EU and Morocco’s “excellent cooperation on migration leading to very good results. We remain confident that this fruitful collaboration can be preserved.”

“Morocco is an important partner for the EU and one of our closest neighbours. We will continue our close cooperation with Rabat to address our common challenges and advance our bilateral partnership, to our mutual benefit,” the statement added.

The EEAS also welcomed Morocco’s offer to facilitate the re-entry of unaccompanied Moroccan minors.

The diplomatic row is not entirely over, however. In the European Parliament on Thursday, MEPs backed a resolution by the liberal Renew Europe and Green groups condemning Morocco’s alleged “abuse” of children and unaccompanied minors.

The resolution, backed by 397 votes to 85, with 196 abstentions, accused the Moroccan government of having breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Since the border row, Morocco has fought back against accusations that it has been weaponising migration, contending that it has prevented more than 450,000 irregular migrants from arriving in Europe over the past decade, has exchanged over 9,000 pieces of information with Spain on irregular migration, and has been the EU’s main partner on migration control.

Rabat appears to have been emboldened by former US president Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, after Morocco moved to formally recognise Israel, a stance which appears unlikely to be reversed by Trump’s successor, Joe Biden.

The increasingly assertive stance of Moroccan King Mohammed VI with European states has seen the country cut diplomatic relations and withdraw its ambassador from Berlin after the Germany questioned Trump’s decision.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government also repeated its support for a compromise solution on the Western Sahara brokered by the United Nations, which is also still the official stance of the EU.

Spain has said that it expects diplomatic relations with Morocco to return to normal after Morocco withdrew its ambassador to Madrid, but Rabat’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, has warned that the rift has “broken trust”.


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