Spain has exercised sovereignty over Ceuta since 1580 and over Melilla since 1496. In 1993, the country joined the European Union; the two Spanish enclaves in north-western Morocco thus became the only territorial European presence in the Maghreb region and the wider African continent. A geopolitical asset for the EU, these enclaves also represent crucial security, migratory, fiscal and political challenges.
Situated about 20km off the southern tip of Spain, Ceuta and Melilla are the only EU territory within the African continent and de facto the only land border the EU shares with Africa. After being ruled by France and Spain for over four decades, Morocco gained independence in 1956. However, Spain refused to handover Ceuta and Melilla who had been vital port cities for centuries and important trading posts between Europe and African countries. Today, the two enclaves are strategic ports for the EU in the Mediterranean and a key link to the African continent. Melilla is home to an important military base and Ceuta, because of its position, controls the Strait of Gibraltar and therefore has direct access to strategic international trade routes.
Despite the small surface area represented by these cities, the stakes are high. Their geographical location lead to two competing priorities: on the one hand, the Spanish government and the EU are keen on enforcing control and securing the border in the wake of increasing migrant influxes; while on the other hand, within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and especially within the Union for the Mediterranean, there is a strong inclination to dialogue, cooperation and interaction between these neighbouring states.
The main challenge of the enclaves, who both hold the special status of « autonomous city », is the migration issue, which is above all illegal. Both cities are of a strategic importance to the EU who is actively seeking to externalise border management. While the Schengen Area has abolished internal border controls, the external borders are getting stronger, especially in the current context of important migration influxes.
Faced with the increase of illegal immigration, the Spanish government decides to erect barriers around both cities to block the way for migrants since the end of the 1990’s. This fencing has been upgraded over time and is partially funded by the EU through regional funding (FEDER), which includes border management. The cost of the first fencing project around Ceuta (1995–2000) amounted to €48 million, 75% of which was financed by the EU. The fact the two cities are surrounded by fortifications lead to the coining of the term “fortress Europe”. It is true that the borderline around Ceuta and Melilla is among the most unequal and heavily guarded borders in the world. Indeed, according to recent surveys the Spanish side is six times wealthier than the Moroccan side. Densely fortified, the border is protected by three rows of 6-meter high electrical barbed wire fencing spanning 12 km as well as important high-tech infrastructure including infrared cameras and constant military surveillance.
With the closure of eastern migration routes, notably of Italian ports as imposed by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the flow of migrants has shifted to Spain. The country has notoriously become the main gateway for illegal immigration to Europe, with more than 47,000 migrants having entered the country since the beginning of the year, including some 5,000 by land (either by crossing the narrow Gibraltar straight or by illegally entering Ceuta or Melilla), according to the International Organization for Migration.
Since the Amsterdam Treaty, immigration has become an EU competence. Among other tools, the EU also uses bilateral agreements with third countries to stall illegal immigration. These third countries are obliged to prevent the access of migrants to European soil in exchange for financial aid. But the collaboration with Morocco in protecting these EU borders has been unstable over time. For example, during political turmoil over agricultural and fisheries negotiations between the EU and Morocco, more migrants managed to cross the border in the space of a few days than throughout the previous 6 months. It is therefore clear that Morocco, as Turkey, sees its control of migration as decisive leverage on the EU and uses the border to exercise political pressure over the bloc.
But at the same time, the Mediterranean basin is increasingly seen as an area of coexistence, cooperation and integration. Back in October 2008, the EU granted Morocco an “advanced status”, making it the first country in the southern Mediterranean region to benefit from such “advanced status” in its relations with the EU. Quoting an expression coined by former EU Commission president Romano Prodi, former Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri, said that the relationship between the EU and Morocco “gives the country everything except the institutions”.
Furthermore, as both Ceuta and Melilla boast few natural resources, they are heavily dependent on the outside world. Their economy is almost entirely reliant on commerce with the EU and Morocco alike, as well as on EU subsidies. Many northern Moroccans speak Spanish because of their various interactions with Spaniards across the border, some of them being “frontier workers”. In fact, the Schengen regulation stats that citizens from the Moroccan provinces adjacent to the enclaves, chiefly Tetouan and Nador, are exempted from visa requirements, which allows them to enter and exit the enclaves (and only the enclaves) on a daily basis, notably for trading purposes. Although this poses the problem of illegal trade and smuggling – and the fact that, due to their special marginal location, both cities benefit from tax-free imports and exports regime only increases the issue – the economic viability of the enclaves depends on this kind of interaction.
This demonstrates some kind of Schengen flexibility and begs to mitigate the “fortress Europe” definition as it allows for ‘selective mobility’. A hangover from the colonial era, this tens situation is as much a necessity as it is a burden for both Ceuta and Melilla.