It was a moment the Spanish prime minister was likely dreading. As he turned to face his Moroccan counterpart, he was confronted with the names he did not want to hear - Ceuta and Melilla. The names of the two Spanish enclaves on the northern Moroccan coastline have dogged Spanish leaders for decades, with each prime minister fearing the issue would blow up on his watch. This month it was Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, who faced the issue that has persistently tainted relations between the two countries.
Abbas el Fassi, the Moroccan prime minister, did not hesitate to reinforce his country's stance. "We have the right to get Ceuta and Melilla back and I told Mr Zapatero that," El Mundo newspaper quoted Mr Fassi as saying. Mr Fassi also said Spain, which has occupied the enclaves for hundreds of years, should not do anything "to raise tensions". Mr Zapatero is the 11th prime minister to face Moroccan demands that the control of territories be handed over therefore restoring the country's geographical integrity.
Spain and Morocco, a former French colony that gained independence in 1956, have never exchanged fire over the dispute, but there have been two invasions and a raft of diplomatic dialogue dedicated to the quarrel. "The issue has never really died and Moroccan politicians do not miss an opportunity to mention the 'occupied territories' of Ceuta and Melilla," said Olivier Guitta, a Washington-based foreign affairs consultant who was born in Morocco. "The leadership wants to show that they are on top of this issue and are not going to let the Spaniards get away with it easily," he said.
However, Mr Guitta said, Morocco would have a tough time persuading Spain that Ceuta and Melilla were better off as part of the north African country. "The Spaniards are adamant in keeping these enclaves that they see as an entire part of their territory and a protective barrier of their homeland. Pride is a huge obstacle." Ivan Chaves, a publishing administrator who lives in Ceuta and is the secretary general of the Socialist Party of the People of Ceuta, said Morocco had no chance of claiming the enclave as its own.
"The natives of Ceuta - it doesn't matter the religion they profess - are, and want to continue to be, Spanish," he said. "Ceuta has been a Spanish city for many centuries, where Christians, Muslims, Hebrews and Hindus coexist. "I think their claim is totally unjust. [Morocco is] a wonderful country that should worry more for what it has than for what they want to have," he said. Morocco faces several challenges in getting the result it wants.
Ceuta and Melilla have a higher standard of living than Morocco and residents also enjoy all the benefits of inclusion in the EU, meaning those living there are unlikely to want to waive these privileges. Morocco does not have any legal avenue for its fight, as the enclaves are "autonomous towns", not colonies, and are a part of Spain with their own representatives in parliament. The Moroccan prime minister's comments, meanwhile, were part of a long dialogue between the two countries, which together face tough issues.
Illegal immigrants and terrorism have dominated talks in recent years. Spain demands Morocco do more to stop unwanted migrants from getting into Ceuta and Melilla. The enclaves are also perceived to be a starting point for suspected terrorists wishing to enter Europe. This, as well as the fact that terrorists connected to the 2004 bombings in Madrid had links to Morocco, has led to increased co-operation between the two countries.
In addition to sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, Spain controls a peninsula and several islands off the coast of north Africa. The two cities are the prize catch, but it was a small, empty island that forced a military standoff between the two countries in July 2002 that started with a handful of Moroccan soldiers landing on the island and ended with Colin Powell, who was US secretary of state at the time, stepping in to help settle the situation.
Tempers flared again in November last year after the visit to Ceuta and Melilla by Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. Morocco recalled its ambassador in protest. He returned in January. In 1957, Morocco invaded the Spanish-controlled province of Ifni, on the west coast of the north African country. After 12 years Spain handed over the territory, and ever since Morocco has been working to get control of the other enclaves.
While its chances of success in the short term are slim, there could be some long-term hope for those committed to gaining control of the territories. Mr Chaves said Morocco's claim on the enclaves could intensify if it ever got control of the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that it lays claim to. The region is listed by the United Nations as an ungoverned territory, but a victory could boost Morocco's confidence and would be one less distraction in its quest to get control of Ceuta and Melilla. Another glimmer of hope for the Muslim country is changing demographics, said Peter Gold, author of Europe or Africa? A Contemporary Study of the Spanish North African Enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
According to Spanish census information, many of the Muslims in the enclaves are of Moroccan origin and it is this group that may force further discussion of the issue. About 40 per cent of Melilla's 72,000 residents are Muslim, while in Ceuta they make up about 30 per cent of the enclave's 75,000 residents. "The people of Moroccan background are a growing part of the populations of Ceuta and Melilla," said Mr Gold, a lecturer of Spanish studies at the University of the West of England. "It is possible that later this century they will be a majority and could theoretically decide that they would prefer to be part of Morocco."
However, Mr Gold said the chances were slim. "There is now such a long history of a Spanish presence in the enclaves that, together with their strategic value, would make it impossible for Spain to relinquish them, and no Spanish government would want to take the political risk of doing so." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org