EU dilemma on Morocco-Western Sahara conflict remains unsolved

The EU-Morocco fisheries agreement must not include the disputed Western Sahara, the ECJ ruled. [Juan Antonio F. Segal/Flickr]

Morocco is the EU’s most stable trading partner in North Africa and a reliable ally in Brussels’ efforts to control African migration across the Mediterranean. But two rulings by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have revived political tensions in the region and complicated things for the Commission.

The ECJ ruled in February that the EU’s fisheries agreement with Morocco was only valid if it did not include the disputed Western Sahara territory south-west of Morocco. That followed a similar ECJ ruling on EU-Morocco agricultural trade in December 2016.

Morocco fisheries pact must not include Western Sahara, EU court confirms

The EU’s fisheries agreement with Morocco is valid as long as it does not include the Western Sahara territory, a region disputed by Morocco and independence fighters, the bloc’s top court, the European Court of Justice, ruled on Tuesday (27 February).

The ECJ rulings do not appear to have held the Commission back. On June 11, the EU executive concluded a draft trade agreement with Morocco proposing that “products originating from Western Sahara which are subject to the control of the Moroccan customs authorities benefit from the same commercial preferences granted by the EU to products covered by the association agreement”.

The EU executive says that Western Sahara’s agricultural and fisheries exports are worth more than €200 million per year and are responsible for almost 60,000 jobs. The new pact would “contribute to the economic development of Western Sahara,” the Commission contends.

Imposing tariffs on Sahrawi goods and produce would “increase the likelihood of these processing activities moving to other locations, probably in Morocco,” it adds.

However, the Commission’s attempt at a compromise has been rejected by Western Sahara’s political representatives, the Polisario Front.

“It is clear these proposals, made without the consent of the Saharawi people or Frente Polisario, would strengthen Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara and the exploitation of its natural resources at a critical moment in the peace process – and clearly prejudice any final outcome in Morocco’s favour,” Mohammed Sidati, Polisario’s Representative to the European Union, told EURACTIV.

“We are deeply concerned at the signal this sends to a Moroccan Government which has already refused to commit to negotiations,” Sidati added.

Court in confusion – the EU and Western Sahara

Few were surprised when the European Court of Justice ruled on 27 February that the EU’s fisheries agreement with Morocco is valid, but only if it does not include the disputed Western Sahara territory.

For their part, a group of more than 90 Sahrawi civil society organisations denounced the agreement, argued that the Commission had not undertaken a proper consultation of Sahrawi groups.

“Instead of asking for the consent of the people of Western Sahara, the Commission has engaged in consultations with stakeholders while an agreement with Morocco had already been signed,” the NGOs complained.

Polisario say they will go back to court if the new pact does not have their consent, and Sidati told EURACTIV that his team had only met with the Commission once since the original ECJ ruling in December 2016.

However, while the new pact appears to offer identical trading terms to the previous agreements and resolve the problem posed by the Luxembourg-based Court, Rabat is not entirely happy with the EU’s offer either.

The Commission’s proposal states that it has “has not recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara”, adding that the EU “has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to resolving the dispute in Western Sahara, a non-self-governing territory.”

Diplomatic sources told EURACTIV that Morocco is likely to put pressure on member states to change the language.

However, Rabat feels that concluding the new trade deal would also strengthen its hand in upcoming peace talks led by the UN’s Special Envoy for Western Sahara, former German President Horst Kohler.

Kohler is likely to demand that the two sides come to the negotiating table in September, EURACTIV understands.

The trade deal now needs to be ratified by the European Parliament and governments. EU trade ministers are expected to sign off on the proposal in late July – France and Spain are strong backers of Morocco, with Sweden the only member state to publicly criticise the Commission’s position. MEPs on the International Trade committee are likely to start their own ratification process after the summer recess.

“How can they do a deal with Morocco but not recognize its sovereignty over WS?” a diplomatic source told EURACTIV.

It seems inevitable that this long-running saga will soon end up back in court.

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