afrol News, 15 July - After Morocco sent a dozen troops to the uninhabited island Perejil/Leila last week, Spain and the European Union openly threaten with economic sanctions. Spanish aid and the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement are at stake, but the Moroccan government stands firm.
Even the name of El Perejil - as the Spanish know the island 200 meters off Morocco's coast - is disputed. Morocco calls the rock of the size of a football field Leila. Since Spain withdrew from its Northern Morocco protectorate in 1956, both countries have laid claim to this and six other uninhabited islands off Morocco. A practice of almost 50 years of restraint by Spain and Morocco over the islands was broken by Morocco's deployment of troops.
The Spanish government immediately qualified Morocco's troop deployment as a hostile act and as "an invasion" of Spanish territory. In a short statement, the Danish EU Presidency also announced it was "very concerned over the situation created by Morocco on the island of Perejil," and demanded a withdrawal. Morocco however claims Leila always has been Moroccan and that the erected control post is needed in the fight against illegal migration, drug trafficking and terrorism.
While Spanish warships now patrol the area - indicating a military operation is not ruled out - the option of economic reactions to Morocco's move is increasingly taking its shape.
Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar in his annual state of the nation speech in Parliament today repeated, between the lines, earlier threats of economic sanctions. "Spain and Morocco have intense relations of all kinds; commercial, development aid and in the business sector," Aznar hinted.
Observers read the Spanish governments' reaction as a threat to suspend the 1991 Cooperation and Friendship Treaty between the two neighbours. Contributing to the speculations are the widely used Spanish government references to the act "incompatible with friendship" by Morocco. Following the Friendship Treaty, Morocco has become the number one receiver of Spanish development aid worldwide. Several incentives to promote trade and investments also exist.
Following the concealed Spanish threats, also the EU has started to talk about possible economic sanctions - with wide-ranging consequences. EU-Moroccan economic cooperation is a pillar in Morocco's economy. The EU's expressed "full solidarity with Spain" in this case could therefore prove vital.
Morocco is associated to the EU, giving the country free access to European markets for most of its products. Through the 1996 Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement between Europe and non-European Mediterranean countries, Morocco is also to be part of a large free trade area within ten years. More than half of Morocco's trade now is with the EU and Morocco the country has also access to certain EU development funds. Between 1996 and 1998, Morocco received aid worth € 450 million from the EU.
Not only the Danish EU Presidency has voiced its solidarity with Spain. EU Foreign Commissioner Chris Patten on Friday clearly stated that EU-Moroccan relations could be seriously harmed if Morocco did not remove its troops. European Commission President Romano Prodi on Saturday expressed "the grave concern of Europe" over the occupation.
Spain however has not asked for EU sanctions against Morocco yet, although such a request is expected if there is not reached an agreement between Rabat and Madrid within few days. In the given situation, it is unsure if the French government - Rabat's closest ally - will risk defending Morocco against Spain.
Meanwhile, analysts speculate why Morocco is taking this great diplomatic risk over an acreage of parsly (perejil is Spanish for parsley). Humorists point out that the dozen of wild goats on the island - its only inhabitants - have exterminated all the parsley several generations ago. The riches of the island are however of minor interest to both Spain and Morocco.
Spaniards perceive the occupation as a signal of a more aggressive Moroccan policy towards its claim on the two Spanish exclaves Ceuta and Melilla, which have been Spanish for over five centuries. The Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa has called for a diplomatic initiative to clear all questions of dispute between the two countries. His Spanish counterpart, Minister Ana Palacio, quickly answered that Ceuta and Melilla were "not up to discussion".
The cooling of relations between the two neighbours has gone on for almost a year. Spain now more overtly supports the independence movement of its former colony Western Sahara, now occupied by Morocco. In October last year, Morocco withdrew its Madrid ambassador, who has not been reinstated since. In January, Morocco qualified Spanish oil prospecting off the Canary Islands as an "unfriendly" act. Shortly before the deployment of troops on Perejil/Leila, Morocco protested fiercely against Spanish warships exercising too close to the Moroccan coast.