Whenever people in the UK, racked with colonial guilt, complain about British sovereignty over Gibraltar, those better informed will point out that Spain has sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, and that Morocco objects to that as well. Unfortunately, there seems to be a belief among Guardian and Independent readers that it’s only colonialism when the British do it. 

I recently paid a short trip to Ceuta, and found it a nice enough place. However, it was too short for the Guardia Civil’s liking, as when I went through passport control at the ferry terminal, I was taken aside by officers questioning my motives for visiting. Being questioned by the police in your own country and in your own language is bad enough, but in someone else’s, it’s even worse.


After being made to sit and wait, I was taken to the radiography room, where the Guardia Civil were able to confirm that I did not have cocaine or hashish concealed anywhere on my person, and I was free to go. Small mercies, as in 2001, a group of British planespotters in Greece were arrested and charged with espionage after taking down the numbers of military aircraft.

The irony is that I was not travelling from Gibraltar, supposedly a smuggler’s paradise, but from a territory fully under the control of the Spanish state. Indeed, Ceuta itself seemed ultra-Spanish, displaying a disproportionately large Spanish flag. And despite much of the city’s population being Arab, it seemed more like the European quarter of Algiers in the heyday of French rule.

Indeed, just as Spain asserts that Ceuta and Melilla are parts of its metropolitan territory, France once made the same assertion with regard to Algeria, but it became untenable to hold onto it while denying full political rights to the Arab majority. By contrast, Spain’s outposts in North Africa are much smaller and therefore much more manageable, at least for the time being.


As it happens, Ceuta was not originally Spanish, but Portuguese, and the city’s flag and coat of arms still look similar to those of Lisbon, despite passing to Spain in 1640 following the end of the Iberian Union. And despite claims that Morocco did not exist at the time, much of the present day territory of Ceuta, and Melilla, was ceded by Morocco to Spain in the nineteenth century.

Under the Treaty of Wad-Ras in 1860, Spain also acquired the enclave of Ifni, in the south west of Morocco, albeit under conditions as unfair and unequal as those that saw China ceding Hong Kong Island to Britain in perpetuity. However, despite its proximity to the Canary Islands, Ifni attracted few Spanish settlers, and was only a protectorate until after Morocco regained independence.

Nevertheless, after Morocco went to war over Ifni in 1957, which saw it take control of the enclave, Spain declared what it had left, the town of Sidi Ifni, a province, with a deputy in the Cortes in Madrid. This was an attempt to blunt UN criticism of its sovereignty by claiming that, as with Ceuta and Melilla, these were not colonies at all, but integral parts of its national territory.

This, however, became untenable, and after a series of UN General Assembly resolutions calling for Ifni’s decolonisation in dialogue with Morocco, Spain returned the enclave fifty years ago last Sunday, without an act of self-determination, just three weeks after it had closed the border with Gibraltar, as an attempt to curry favour with the UN in pursuing its claim to the Rock.

This was bitterly denounced by the would-be Caudillo Blas Piñar, in his memoir Escrito para la Historia; when referring to Ifni, he used the word ‘retrocession’ in scare quotes, instead preferring ‘abandonment’. What irked him the most was that whereas the UN had put more pressure on Spain to relinquish Ifni, along with Equatorial Guinea, than on Britain to relinquish Gibraltar.

Today, although Morocco’s official tourism website extols Ifni’s ‘Spanish charm and southern skies’, with old buildings and street signs surviving, the former Spanish consulate building has long laid derelict. Unlike France, anxious to preserve its cultural influence in former colonial enclaves in India like Pondicherry, Spain seems happy to let what little it has left in Ifni fade away.


Is this in spite of having gone to war over the enclave, or because of it? If that was the ‘Forgotten War’, people in Gibraltar have a duty to remind Spain of it, although it is disappointing how few have heard of it, or even Ifni, especially given how Foreign Minister Abel Matutes accused the UK of double standards when it came to Hong Kong. But could Spain have ever stood up to China?

As to Ceuta and Melilla, there are also double standards because while Spain has tried to undermine Gibraltar’s fiscal independence from the UK, it has allowed its autonomous cities to slash their rates of corporation tax in an attempt to lure gaming companies. Yet there has not been so much as a murmur from the European Commission over this regional selectivity or state aid.

That Gibraltar is unfazed by this, seeing Malta as a far greater competitive threat, is not the point, even if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, for as long as Spain is within the EU, it cannot have regions with such a high degree of fiscal autonomy, and then complain that Gibraltar, Brexit or no Brexit, with or without representation at Westminster, has the same.