Europe & world Europe abroad

Spain: Melilla, North Africa’s European dream

5 August 2010
De Volkskrant Amsterdam

During the visit of Spain's royal couple in Melilla, November 2007.

During the visit of Spain's royal couple in Melilla, November 2007.

Rabat sees the Spanish enclave of Melilla as an occupied territory. But the Moroccans who live and work there have become attached to its unique character and don't want it to change.

A marriage is in full swing at the Café Del Real. Three of the guests, Mina, Aziza and Karim, have spent anywhere from half to their entire lives in Melilla. They are of Moroccan origin, but their attitude is clearly Spanish. "If Morocco takes over here, then I will jump across to the other side", remarks Karim, alluding to continental Spain. But on one point, they are clearly Moroccan: they do not want their family names published. Their feelings about Melilla do not follow the Moroccan party line, and they wish to avoid problems for family members who remain in Morocco.

The issue of Melilla, a 12 square kilometre parcel of land surrounded by barbed wire with a population of 80,000, is a very sensitive one for Morocco. For Rabat, it is an occupied territory, a viewpoint recently seconded by Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi during a telephone conference with the Spanish government on "the occupation" of Melilla and Ceuta, the other Spanish enclave in northern Morocco. Spain maintains that there is no question as to the "sovereignty and Spanish character" of Ceuta and Melilla.

For Morocco, Melilla is a last vestige of colonialism

Mina, Aziza and Karim enjoy quality education, affordable health care and other benefits of Spanish-style democracy here. Salaries are also higher than on the other side of the barbed wire. "Many products are more expensive in Morocco. A litre of milk that costs half a euro in Melilla costs 80 cents in Morocco", explains Aziza. There is no compelling argument for Moroccan residents of Melilla to put an end to this beautiful existence.

The wedding party at the Café Del Real is mixed: Rabiaa, the bride, is Moroccan, and her husband Juan Miguel is Spanish. According to Antonio Portillo Gómez, a cafe  habitué, "the entire population of Melilla is multicultural". "Numerous civilisations have existed here, and Melilla has a history that goes back long before the Moroccans came to power. So why does Morocco consider Ceuta and Melilla to be Moroccan territory?" In 1497 Melilla was already Spanish, and Ceuta eventually followed suit in 1578. Over the last century, the influence of the Spanish realm was felt throughout northern Morocco, but when the country won its independence in 1956, Spain gave up this territory, with the exception of Ceuta, Melilla and three minuscule islands off the Moroccan coast that have existed for centuries as Spanish possessions.

From the Spanish point of view, the current situation is fair, given its long history. But Morocco definitely sees things differently. When Spanish king Juan Carlos visited Ceuta and Melilla for the first time in November, 2007, he provoked a diplomatic crisis. Morocco recalled its ambassador to Spain, and Prime Minister El Fassi declared that the age of colonialism had "irrevocably" passed.

Morocco sees this as a last vestige of the colonial era, and this is why they are so adamant about taking over these two enclaves. The port of Tanger Med was constructed just next to Ceuta, and a similar port complex is being built next to Melilla. The underlying idea is to contain the economic activity of the enclaves in order to eventually make them too expensive for Spain to maintain.

Every day 12,000 Moroccans come into Melilla

In any case, these two small territories are already quite costly for Spain, as the government foots the bill to lure mainland citizens there with tax breaks and elevated salaries for civil servants willing to migrate. For the time being, the financial situation of the enclaves remains positive, thanks largely to the Moroccans. Those who live near the enclaves can enter without a visa, and about 12,000 visitors a day come to Melilla, where they buy inexpensive products like milk, shampoo and blankets to sell at a small profit back on the Moroccan side. In April, French television station M6 broadcast a documentary on the "women-mules" who transport 60 to 80 kilos of merchandise on their backs, even if they are very old or pregnant. At times, these women are even herded like cattle by billy-club toting police near the border. The Moroccan paper Akhbar Alyoum called the film "shocking".

Do the Spanish residents of Melilla discriminate against the Moroccans there? "No, not at all", Karim replies. This is what the inhabitants like to believe: that Melilla is a model multicultural state. But they are also aware that the Spanish of the Iberian Peninsula look down on them because they live in Africa, while residents tout the benefits of their multi-ethnic orientation. And enclave inhabitants like to cultivate the image of living in a cultural oasis in the midst of a barbarous desert: "In Morocco, women don't have the right to speak, but that's not the case here", brags a Spanish woman from Melilla.

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