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Spain and Morocco’s annual spat over for another year

Despite the diplomatic tensions between Madrid and Rabat during the summer, this kind of problem has become a regular summer occurrence.


It has become a summer classic; argy-bargy across the Strait of Gibraltar. With the arrival of September’s UN gathering in New York, the Spanish prime minister and Moroccan king have drawn an apparently effortless line under several weeks of apparently simmering tensions, blazing front-page headlines and much talk of a diplomatic crisis.

“The photograph is the main thing,” José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero muttered toward Mohammed VI in New York as the pair smiled amid the camera flashes, the Spaniard later explaining that there had been little in the way of details included in their discussion. There was no need, he said; that was what the upcoming summits and ministerial meetings would deal with.

It was business as usual in what has been a largely constructive bilateral partnership since Zapatero took over from his bellicose predecessor six years ago. It was José María Aznar who presided over the ultimate summer spat with Spain’s southern neighbour in 2002, mounting a preposterously overblown military task force to retake Perejíl, a deserted island -or “rock” as Colin Powell termed it after being summoned to mediate- that the Moroccans had shown the temerity to fly their flag on.

Apart from avoiding any serious damage to a relationship the Spanish Socialist leader genuinely prizes as a cornerstone of his government’s foreign policy, Zapatero must be delighted at how his domestic rival, opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, ended up on the receiving end of the harshest criticism to have come out of Rabat all summer.

But before we see how the Popular Party leader got his timing all wrong and actually helped to resolve what was a mere tiff, we should rewind to the start of the summer. Melilla, one of two Spanish enclaves on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, became the scene of tense protests and a blockade after Moroccan authorities had accused Spanish border police of brutality. The blockade was largely symbolic and was not carried out in the name of the Moroccan government, but rather by associations (which nevertheless almost certainly had official blessing, as nothing can be said or done publicly in Morocco when it comes to territorial politics without taking the crown into account). While Spain’s King Juan Carlos was pressed into diplomatic service to talk to his counterpart, Aznar had his blood up and was banging on the gates of the southern kingdom in Melilla during a provocative visit there, much to the delight of news editors amid the usually barren period of mid-August.

Then a group of Spanish protestors were roughed up in Laâyoune, Western Sahara, where they had joined a demonstration in favour of the disputed territory’s independence from Morocco. Somewhat weary with the excessive activity on the Maghrebi front, Madrid actually made a show of believing Rabat’s line that the pro-Sahrawi Spaniards had not been beaten by Moroccan security forces but by locals who were outraged at their presence and “anti-Moroccan” attitude. Zapatero has since repeated that the (much-cited but still mysterious) Moroccan proposal of autonomy for Western Sahara represents the best chance of a solution to a 35-year-old problem.

But even this did not immediately appear to guarantee a return to calmer waters in the Strait; nor did Rajoy’s arrival in Melilla. It had been trumpeted in the Spanish media and after Aznar’s tub-thumping trip, there was little chance of it going unnoticed in Rabat. Despite the opposition leader’s decision not to approach the border itself, his visit was a “provocation” which met with the “total rejection” of Moroccan Prime Minister Abbas el Fassi.

But Rajoy’s effort to stoke the embers of the row served merely to remind those in charge that summer had now ended and it was time to get back to serious matters. In fact, press reports suggest that the whole affair started with complaints by the Moroccan monarch that some Spanish military helicopters were persistently flying low over his royal yacht back in June. Recent history tells us we can now forget about Spain and Morocco’s bilateral tensions until next summer.

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Published: Oct 4 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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