Spain’s Possessions in North Africa: Undiscussed Controversy?

Hampton Toole discusses the little known controversy surrounding the cities of Ceuta and Melilla…

How much controversy can two small port cities lodged in the Southern Mediterranean cause? Ceuta and Melilla, it seems, are keen to find out. These autonomous cities, or ‘Plazas de Soberanía’, form a small stretch of Spanish territory in Northern Africa that borders Morocco. Their simple existence is the source of much controversy between governments and international governing bodies, bringing forth questions regarding what colonialism is, how territorial legitimacy is defined, and issues of borders in today’s international climate. 

            Ceuta and Melilla were Spanish possessions long before the establishment of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco which came about with the 19thcentury ‘Scramble for Africa’. While levels of Spanish control over the cities waxed and waned over the years, both cities have effectively been under Spanish rule since 1497 (BBC profile). [HT1] This long-standing rule has ensured that the cities themselves are indistinguishable from their counterparts on the Iberian Peninsula, complete with ‘wide avenues and beautiful fountains’ and a population that is mostly Spanish Christian, alongside a sizeable minority of Jews and Moroccan Muslims. Even with the cities’ ethnic and racial diversity, their populations are “united in their fervent loyalty to a crown and country whose capital lies hundreds of miles away.”(Telegraph)[HT2] 

            Because of this level of assimilation and Spanish identity, it may seem surprising that the cities’ Spanish status can be challenged. However, the Spanish and therefore EU presence in Africa has generated many issues. The first of these stems from Moroccan objections to what it sees as unjust Spanish rule in Northern Africa. Intense rhetoric was put forth by the Moroccan government on the occasion of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia’s 2007 visit to Ceuta and Melilla—referring to the visit as a ‘provocation’ and the possession of the territories as ‘continued and anachronistic colonialism.’ (Telegraph, TIME[HT3] ) Morocco’s indignation is often written off due to the desire of the cities’ residents to be Spanish, and was seen in 2007 as a desperate effort to increase nationalist sentiment within Morocco itself (TIME)[HT4] . Such condemnations are also contested by the long period of Spanish rule in Ceuta and Melilla. Peter Gold’s ‘Europe or Africa? A Contemporary Study of the Spanish North African Enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla,’ explains the unwillingness of the international community to condemn Spain for colonialism as the Moroccans have done. Simply put, Spanish settlement and rule of Ceuta and Melilla significantly predates the establishment of the Moroccan state. The United Nations therefore holds that these cities therefore do not belong on the list of territories awaiting decolonisation. 

Gibraltar, however, is on the list of territories awaiting decolonisation, making Spanish and UN policies on Ceuta and Melilla problematic. Like Ceuta and Melilla, Gibraltar has ‘no desire to change the status quo,’ as shown by the sound defeat—17,900 votes to 187—of the 2002 referendum proposing joint Spanish and British administration of the territory (Telegraph[HT5] ). While Ceuta and Melilla have been Spanish for around 100 years longer than Gibraltar has been under British rule, the latter fell under the legally binding Treaty of Utrecht. In contrast, Ceuta and Melilla were never formally ceded but were instead forcibly taken and settled. Considering Spain’s constant and vehement disapproval of the British maintenance of Gibraltar as well as tenuous disapproval from the UN, it is curious that neither of these bodies see fit to respond to the Ceuta and Melilla controversy with the same outrage. 

Despite the inattention given to their controversial Spanish status, Ceuta and Melilla have faced difficulties regarding their European status in recent years. For a large part, this is the result of swaths of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe. The land border between Spanish North Africa and Morocco has been guarded by six-metre, razor wire topped fences in recent years, leading to extreme injuries on two occasions in 2017 when migrants attempted to cross in large groups (BBC). [HT6] In the context of the wider Mediterranean refugee crisis and xenophobia in Europe, we can see the cities as ‘a kind of theatre, acting out the most intense human dramas which are calculated to send a message of deterrence to that great global audience of hopeful poor.’ (Guardian)[HT7] 

The fact of the matter is that with the study of history, objections to the sovereignty of states over dubiously acquired territory can easily be found. Just one example is the territory held by the United States, which was taken with varying levels of force and legality from Native American tribes, Mexico and others over the years. The issue, therefore, is less over the control of territory and is more over the identification of the Self, or one who belongs in the territory, and the Other, who does not. Ceuta and Melilla leave behind many questions regarding who this ‘Self’ is—for while they are ethnically, culturally and economically European, the cities are after all in Africa. If Europe is an ideology or an economic link, perhaps the politics of inclusion and exclusion should no longer be applied due to geographical circumstance. 








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s