MEPs stir north Africa’s frozen conflict

MEPs backed a new EU-Morocco fisheries agreement this week. But will that do anything to solve the conflict over Western Sahara's status? [David Stanley/ Flickr]

The European Parliament endorsed the new EU-Morocco Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement on Tuesday (12 February). Although it was a triumph for Morocco and its lobbying efforts in Brussels, it is unlikely to do anything to resolve a long-running legal and political saga in North Africa.

Morocco effectively annexed Western Sahara in 1975, sparking a guerrilla war with the Polisario Front, the independence movement which claims to represent the people of Western Sahara, which was ended by a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

The conflict has been frozen ever since, although Morocco still occupies around two-thirds of the territory of Western Sahara. Former German President Horst Köhler is the UN envoy to Western Sahara tasked with re-starting the stalled peace process. However, Morocco still claims sovereignty over the Western Sahara and peace talks have made little progress.

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. That followed a similar ruling by the ECJ in December 2016 that an EU trade agreement with Morocco did not apply to Western Sahara.

Around 90% of the catches of European vessels are made in Western Saharan waters, the ECJ’s general counsel, Melchior Wathelet, said in an assessment in January 2018.

A statement by the European Parliament played down the political importance of the new fisheries deal, insisting that the agreement “does not prejudice the outcome of the political process on the final status of Western Sahara and fully supports UN efforts to find a political solution which allows the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

But representatives of Polisario say the new fisheries pact “constitute(s) operations of robbery and of the plundering of the resources of our country.”

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).

Key to the ECJ’s ruling was that any future agreement between the EU and Morocco involving Western Sahara would require the consent of the Sahrawi people, and directly benefit them.

Morocco says that this has been achieved, and that it has obtained the consent of elected officials and business leaders in Western Sahara. A Moroccan government official told EURACTIV that Polisario representatives had been invited for negotiations with them and EU officials but refused to attend.

Rabat accuses Polisario of failing its people through its intransigence.

“It is a matter of development. The people of Western Sahara need jobs and schools. We have invested a huge amount in Western Sahara,” a Moroccan official told EURACTIV.

Polisario’s representative in Brussels, Mohamed Sidati, has described the talks with Sahrawi representatives as “a scaffolding of false consultations”. Sidati added that the new EU-Morocco pact would “undermine the UN peace process”.

The process of the Parliament approving the deal has been far from smooth. Patricia Lalonde, a French Liberal MEP, resigned as rapporteur for the Parliament’s International Trade Committee in December, just before deputies voted on her report. Her departure followed accusations that she had a conflict of interest by serving alongside a number of Moroccan officials on the board of directors of Fondation EuroMedA.

Meanwhile, a fact-finding mission by Lalonde and several other MEPs in September 2018 focused on two cities in Western Sahara occupied by Morocco.

“Polisario is not the only representative of Western Sahara,” a separate Moroccan official told EURACTIV. “You cannot claim to have a monopoly on representation. That is not democratic,” the official added.

Morocco has positioned itself as a useful ally to the EU and, with Spain and France, its main European trading partners and main diplomatic supporters, has established what a Rabat official describes as a “privileged relationship with the EU”.

It has more difficulty with the Trump administration in the US. Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton recently voiced his support for a referendum in the disputed territory.

Before voting to adopt the new fisheries agreement, MEPs rejected the possibility of referring it to the Court of Justice to verify its validity. Polisario and its legal representatives say they will take the matter back to the Luxembourg-based court themselves. In other words, little has changed, with or without the new agreement.

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.

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