The arrival of 12 Moroccan soldiers Friday on a tiny island inhabited only by goats set off an international incident this weekend, with Spain claiming the Rabat administration had made a serious challenge to its sovereignty. The “invasion” of Isla de Perejil (Parsley Island), 200 yards from the Moroccan mainland, led Spain to dispatch gunboats, submarines, and attack helicopters; caused the president of the European Commission to warn the Moroccan prime minister that a protracted occupation would have “pernicious consequences” for his country’s relations with Europe; and escalated to a war of words between the European Union and the Arab League. According to Spain’s El País, a Moroccan spokesman called Spain’s reaction “totally disproportionate.”
Morocco has long disputed the legitimacy of Spain’s remaining territories in North Africa: Ceuta and Melilla, two enclaves on the mainland of Morocco; and three island groups, including Perejil’s cluster, the Chafarinas. Britain’s Independent explained, “Perejil formed part of the Spanish protectorate of northern Morocco, handed back to Rabat in 1956, except for Ceuta and Melilla. Spain considered Perejil part of Ceuta, but after objections from Rabat, did not mention the islet in the final document.” Madrid concedes that its claim on Perejil is questionable—in official statements, the Spanish government has simply insisted that Morocco must abide by the “status quo”—but as El País observed, “Doing nothing when there are Moroccan soldiers on Perejil has a price and could set a precedent. But so does doing something. This uninhabited islet, whose existence most Spaniards ignored until [Friday], isn’t worth a single shot. The civilized thing would be … for both sides to allow the International Court at the Hague to settle this dispute.” A searing editorial in El Mundo of Madrid concluded, “Perejil isn’t even worth the fuel for the patrol boats. But neither can we ignore the obvious symbolism of this hostile act. The king of Morocco has chosen the path of confrontation with one of the great European democracies and this should have a serious cost for him.”
Several papers speculated about the timing of the Perejil invasion. The Independent suggested the Moroccans had taken advantage of a “power vacuum” in Spain after the appointment of a new foreign minister in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle. The Financial Times said it may have been “Morocco’s opening salvo in a campaign to recover the Spanish enclaves. More immediately, it might have been triggered by Spanish naval exercises off the Moroccan resort of El-Hoceima this month. In the past, Spain has notified Morocco of intended manoeuvres in its territorial waters. This time no warning was given.” Relations between the two countries have been strained in recent months. According to the FT, “Spain accuses Rabat of failing to stem illegal immigration. It suspects Moroccan police are involved in trafficking drugs and human beings.” The latter accusations were said to have offended King Mohammed VI, who celebrated his wedding this weekend, but refused to invite any Spaniards. El Mundo said Mohammed “wanted to add the invasion of a lost island” to the list of wedding gifts he had received, while ABC blamed Mohammed VI’s misstep on his youth. The ABC editorial said that at times Mohammed’s father, Hassan II, “pulled on the cord [that links Spain and Morocco], but he always knew it couldn’t be broken. His son … seems not to understand that Spain, because of its historic stature, deserves respect.”
British commentators couldn’t resist laying into Spain for what they saw as its inconsistent attitudes to Perejil and Gibraltar. In an editorial headlined “The Biter Bit,” the Daily Telegraph crowed, “The Spaniards have been as determined to keep their toe-hold on the African continent as they have to deprive the British of theirs on the Iberian peninsula.” Just last week the British government conceded it had been unable to reach an expected agreement with Spain about the future of Gibraltar’s sovereignty” because of Spanish intransigence.