“It is important to recognize the extraordinary work that the Moroccan security forces are doing, in coordination with their Spanish counterparts, to stem a violent aggression.
These are the words of the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez. He was describing the brutal response from Spanish police and Moroccan security forces to a massive attempt to cross refugees on June 25 at the border of Melilla, one of the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco. The incident left at least 23 people dead (NGOs report a higher death toll, with a minimum of 37 dead) and more than 100 seriously injured.
At the 10-foot-tall border barriers, lined with barbed wire, around 2,000 people, many of them from sub-Saharan Africa, were met with rubber bullets, stonings and beatings with truncheons coordinated by Moroccan security forces working in conjunction with the Spanish Civil Guard. Those shot were left for hours in the open without receiving medical or other assistance, despite the presence of ambulances and medical personnel.
Immediately after the carnage – quickly dubbed the “Massacre of Melilla” by the press – Sánchez praised the security forces, describing the asylum seekers as a threat. “We must remember that many of these migrants attacked Spain’s borders with axes and hooks,” he said. told the Associated Press. “We are talking about an attempted assault on the fence which was obviously carried out in an aggressive manner, and so what the Spanish state security forces and the Moroccan guards did was defend the Spanish borders. ” Later Sanchez tried to go back on his comments, saying he made them when he had yet to see images of suffering.
These remarks, however, reveal a truth lurking in plain sight about Spain’s ‘socialist’ prime minister and leader of what has been touted by some as the most progressive national government in its history. Not only is there an underlying cynicism in its operations and a “drift towards demagoguery” commentators had hoped he would avoid power, but he also reached the inevitable stalemate that years of constant opportunistic pivots between left and right positions have led to.
The selective “solidarity” of Europe.
Sánchez has, at various times in government, sought to use the international migration crisis as a way to cultivate and advance his own progressive credentials. Initially, he tried to contrast its supposedly liberal and humanitarian stance with far-right migration policies led by “strongman” figures like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. One of his first actions when he took office as interim Prime Minister in 2018 was to receive the Migrant rescue vessel Aquarius – a ship carrying more than 600 people rescued off the coast of Libya – which Italy and Malta had refused to allow to dock in their ports. In August 2021, he positions Spain as open the way on European hub initiatives for Afghan refugees, offering to host thousands in an Andalusian military base until their further travel arrangements can be secured – a decision the head of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen called “an example of the soul of Europe.”
The policing and comprehensive management of migration across Europe’s southernmost border with North African territories, however, cast a quite different light on Von der Leyen’s statement and the record of Spain in this regard. Even before last week’s mass killings in Melilla, a number of alarming episodes along Spain’s southern borders have seen them increasingly converted into an extra-legal space where the protection of basic human rights has been largely suspended.
In May 2021, 5,000 people who had entered Spain’s other North African enclave of Ceuta were forcibly expelled, after Morocco opened its border in a maneuver to take advantage of massive crossings in a diplomatic standoff over the disputed territory of Western Sahara (on which Spain is the administrative power since it withdrew his troops from his former colony in 1976). Later that year, Spanish riot police were deployed to turn back 125 asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa to a Spanish promontory off the coast of Morocco. About six months earlier, the images of 2,500 people to be held in the open on a pier in a small harbor in Gran Canaria during the first fall of the Covid-19 pandemic represented other stark examples of this punitive approach – enforced mainly by the Spanish police – along Europe’s southernmost borders.
While the events in Melilla underscore the disconnect between Sánchez’s stance on migration and Spain’s closer alignment with some of the regimes most notorious for human rights abuses in the region under his leadership, they also seem to signal a certain discursive turn on the part of Sánchez. The aftermath of the violence saw the leader in charge of Spain first left-wing coalition government since the 1930s openly embracing the language of the far right.
The deepening of his administration’s ties with Morocco – one of the many authoritarian regimes to which EU Member States outsource their border security management – had serious ramifications for those who live and travel in the region. Domestically, meanwhile, it has reopened deep divisions between Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and junior coalition partner Unidas Podemos – the parties having already clashed several times this year over differences foreign policy in relation to their respective positions on Ukraine. war on Sánchez’s decision to overturn decades of diplomatic precedent and change Spain’s policy on the sovereignty of the territory of Western Sahara.
Now, faced with a galvanized domestic straightSánchez adopts hard-right language on border security in a way that seems to mirror the hard-line unionist stance he took on Catalan independence during another moment of polarization in late 2019. His subsequent attempt to sucking up votes from a perceived ‘middle ground’ was based on a fundamental miscalculation which ultimately offered the far-right insurgent party Vox an opportunity to make huge gains.
Sánchez’s comments suggest his party may seek to emulate a macronesque triangulation strategy, balancing economic orthodoxy with harsh rhetoric against immigrationahead of the next general election scheduled for the end of 2023. Montagnard progressive forces will have to climb ahead of an election, amid a generational crisis in the cost of living, stressed last month regional elections in Andalusia, which saw the PSOE suffer bruising losses in former stronghold territory – and left-wing parties winning only around half of the total right-wing seats combined. Although Sánchez’s floundering government has since announced a modest package of measures to ease the pressures facing Spanish households, citing the measures as evidence that his party is making (undefined) economic powers “uncomfortable”, his instinctive reluctance to confront economic elites could increasingly tempt him to cast off his weak position by leaning into nationalism and xenophobia.
The integration of Vox by Sánchez in 2019 for electoral purposes was a crucial factor explaining the extent of his electoral breakthrough and subsequent upsurge in repeat elections later that year. This time around, a far-right coalition government welcomes Vox to power – a negotiated arrangement in the regional administration of Castilla y León at the beginning of this year – is becoming an increasingly likely prospect. If his response to last week’s events in Melilla is anything to go by, Sánchez looks set to play another dangerous game again now, with the lives of some of the region’s most vulnerable people literally at stake.
Tommy Greene is a freelance journalist and translator. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Open Democracy and Tribune Magazine.