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Rising Tensions Between Spain and Morocco

by Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)

A tiny island, “Perejil” for the Spaniards, and Leila for the Moroccans, have come to the forefront of news for the last few days. For many, this is an alarm bell since it resembles very much like England and Argentina’s scuffle on Falkland Island years ago.

This disputed island that both Spain and Morocco claim to be their own, is interestingly an uninhabited, tiny island, about 200 meters off Morocco’s coast, and its diameter is less than a kilometer. The incident began a few days back, when Morocco sent few of its soldiers to this remote island officially stating its purpose of the all encompassing fight against terrorism and drug and immigration trafficking. Spain protested immediately, and European Union followed the suit. The European Union called the tiny island as the EU territory; they even uttered the threat of harsh sanctions against Morocco if it didn’t withdraw from the islet immediately.

This is one of the rarest moments for the EU, “the EU’s position underscores its progress away from the notion that it consists of a mere trading bloc toward the idea of a political entity, with a single territory and common borders which separate its members as a single political unit from third countries. The idea of common EU borders, on which Greece _ a typical border country _ has long insisted, is now being adopted in practice: Even a disputed, rugged rock which is very near the coastline of a third country is still European territory. Disputing its territorial integrity prompted a common EU response and unreserved solidarity with the individual member state.” [3]

International Herald Tribunal also notes, “The European reaction in the Perejil crisis is not, of course, a huge advance in terms of political unification. Such a development would presuppose a solid consensus over the commonality of vital interests and the existence of European bodies which would define who the common “enemy” is and decide on a single response. Even though the EU is still far from reaching this point, its insistence on a single European territory and common borders is still substantial progress.” [3]

EU’s economic threat is very much real for Morocco, “about three-quarters of Morocco’s exports went to the EU last year, generating $6.2 billion.” [6]

On the Morocco’s side, a predominantly Muslim state, the old “Moors” by the Pravda columnist [4], the Arab nations expressed their full solidarity on its claim of the island. Morocco’s foreign minister referred to the historical documents dating back to 1860, said, “islet Leila has always been an integral part of the Moroccan territory” and that no Spanish official document referred to it as being part of Spain. [5]

Spain countered Morocco’s claim, in which it also sited other larger enclaves in the region, namely, Ceuta and Melilla, “the status of Ceuta and Melilla is not up for discussion, Palacio said. Spain’s centuries-old rule over the two enclaves is “undisputed and indisputable,” she said. [5]

This dispute goes centuries back during the time of Spanish and French colonial rules in Africa. When the Spanish and French colonial rules came to an end, they relinquished all their claims from their “North African Possessions”, French and Spain signed a treaty in 1956, in which Spain retained the rights of Ceuta and Melilla. However, Morocco always strongly disputed on the status of these islands, claiming historical documents that they belong to Morocco.

“The latest row comes as Madrid is locked in complicated negotiations with Britain aimed at sharing sovereignty over the disputed colony of Gibraltar on Spain’s southern coast, and visible from the Moroccan coast.” [5]

Today, July 17, Spain sent its troops, and taken the control of the disputed island forcefully, though previously it claimed it would apply diplomatic pressure on Morocco, prompting the anticipated Moroccan protests, “The Moroccan government urges the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Spanish forces,” the statement read. “The island is an integral part of Moroccan territory.” [2]

Though the colonial rules are supposedly ended many years from now, the ghosting remnants from that ignominious era are still haunting world politics, it seems.


1. “Beware the Diplomatic Storm Brewing in the Mediterranean”, The Independent, July 17, 2002.

2. “Morocco wants Spanish Forces Out”, Yahoo News, July 17, 2002.

3. Kathimerini, “All for One”, The International Herald Tribune, July 16, 2002.

4. Vasity Bubnov, “Spaniards Recaptures the Islands from the Moors”, Pravda July 17, 2002.

5. “Morocco, Spain still at loggerheads over Ceuta”, Jordan Times, July 16, 2002.

6. “Island is Integral Part of Morocco, Rabat Insists” Associated Press, July 16, 2002.

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) can be reached at:

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