Beware the diplomatic storm brewing in the Mediterranean

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The Independent Online

A bizarre little spat has flared up between Spain and Morocco that rings a great many alarm bells, very loudly. At its most benign, the dispute over the tiny island known as Perejil to Spaniards and Leila to Moroccans is a pale and ridiculous imitation of the Falklands conflict between Britain and Argentina. This, at least, is how the more restrained sections of the Spanish media are viewing it.

A bizarre little spat has flared up between Spain and Morocco that rings a great many alarm bells, very loudly. At its most benign, the dispute over the tiny island known as Perejil to Spaniards and Leila to Moroccans is a pale and ridiculous imitation of the Falklands conflict between Britain and Argentina. This, at least, is how the more restrained sections of the Spanish media are viewing it.

At the other end of the scale, the dispute is variously a prelude to World War Three, the rejoining of war between Christendom and the Islamic world, potentially the first outright war since 1945. That is how it might have appeared earlier this week after Spain sent warships to patrol the waters around its North African enclaves and ministers on either side warned that neither could afford the loss of face involved in backing down.

So far, the stand-off seems closer to a farcical re-run of the Argentine capture of South Georgia than to World War Three, but the potential for escalation should not be dismissed. The European Union supports Spain's claim to Perejil; the Arab League supports Morocco. Spanish-Moroccan relations have been fraught for the best part of a year. Spain withdrew its ambassador six months ago; since then disagreements have only multiplied, with accusations flying about illegal immigration into Spain, fishing quotas, drug smuggling and the future of Spain's former colony, the Western Sahara, and its two small enclaves in northern Morocco.

Less tangible, but as pertinent, are the tensions that persist between colonial powers and their former colonies, especially when fortune has treated the two sides so unequally. As Spain's confidence and international clout have grown within the European Union, so Morocco's have languished. If staking a claim to Perejil was all that the king of Morocco could devise as a means of drawing international attention to his recent marriage, this only affirms the limits of his vision. But Spain, too, may welcome the diversion, as the prospects of a Gibraltar agreement with Britain recede and the Rock slips once again from its grasp.

The latest word from Madrid and Rabat is more reassuring. While Spain keeps its warships at sea and Morocco insists that its dozen troops will remain encamped on the island for the moment, ministers in both capitals have suddenly begun to talk about talks. Let us hope that this more conciliatory mood prevails.

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