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

The European Union (EU) claims to be a leader in sustainability and multilateral cooperation. But so far in the World Trade Organization’s fisheries subsidies talks, the EU has failed to lead. With the talks facing an end of year deadline, Europe has just six weeks to take the reins, write Rashid Sumaila and Daniel Pauly. [Juan Antonio F. Segal/Flickr]

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).

In its ruling, the ECJ stated that the EU-Morocco pact “is valid in so far as it is not applicable to Western Sahara and to its adjacent waters. If the territory of Western Sahara were to be included within the scope of the fisheries agreement, that would be contrary to certain rules of general international law,” it said.

The ruling by the Luxembourg-based court comes as no surprise. Last month, the ECJ’s Advocate General warned that it was likely to exclude Western Sahara from the scope of the pact.  In December 2016, the ECJ ruled that a trade agreement with Morocco did not apply to Western Sahara.

EU court casts doubt on Morocco's claim to Western Sahara

Two deals between Morocco and the European Union do not apply to Western Sahara, the EU’s top court said during a raft of rulings made yesterday (21 December), in a decision that a group seeking the disputed territory’s independence said was a victory for its cause.

Last month, Polisario (the independence movement in Western Sahara) announced that it would seek €240 million per year in compensation from European companies involved in exporting products from Western Sahara without its agreement.

The region’s most profitable fishing grounds are in Western Sahara.

Morocco considers Western Sahara, which is fought for with the Polisario Front after Spain withdrew from the land in 1974, to be part of its territory. Polisario, which claims to represent Western Sahara, seeks a UN-mandated referendum on independence from Rabat.

The UN regards the region as a “non-self-governing territory”.

European Commission spokeswoman Catherine Ray told reporters that the EU executive was “in the process of examining it (the judgement) more closely” but would “fully” respect the ruling.

“The EU co-operates closely with Morocco and will continue to do so,” she added.

The case was brought to the ECJ by the Western Sahara Campaign UK in 2015.

“Once again EU law is firmly on the side of the Saharawi people,” Mohamed Sidati, Polisario’s Representative in Brussels, told EURACTIV.

“The ruling makes clear, as with the case of December 2016 that the fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco cannot be applied to Western Sahara or its adjacent waters; doing so would be a violation of international law and the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

“We hope the matter is now closed by today’s ruling,” he added, calling on the EU and national governments to “take immediate steps to comply with the ruling, and halt all ongoing efforts to circumvent EU law by including Western Sahara in EU-Morocco deals without the consent of the Saharawi people.”

However, the EU sees Morocco as an important trading and diplomatic partner in the Maghreb region.

In January, the Commission sought a mandate from EU governments to negotiate a new fisheries pact with Morocco to replace the current four-year agreement which expires in July. The EU currently pays Rabat €40 million per year in subsidies to its fishermen in exchange for access to the waters for around 120 European vessels, most of them French and Spanish.

“Polisario want a genuine political settlement. But if the Commission just pay no attention to the ECJ rulings then Polisario as a last resort will take it back to court,” Nour Bakr of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit, diplomatic advisory group that advises Polisario, told EURACTIV.

“The Commission launched a consultation on the trade amendment but never communicated directly, or formally consulted Polisario. It was Polisario who requested a meeting with the Commission, outside of the framework of this consultation process, to open a constructive dialogue on the wider issue of Western Sahara. The Commission is playing it very cynically.  Everything is through the prism of relations with Morocco,” he added.

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