A European court overturned the EU’s trade and fisheries agreements with Morocco because they were made without the consent of the people of Western Sahara.
The vast territory of the Atlantic coast of Africa was annexed by Morocco in 1975 after the withdrawal of Spain, the colonial power, in an approach largely unrecognized internationally and opposed by the Polisario Front, which waged a war of 16-year guerrilla war against the kingdom.
In a victory for the independence movement, the EU General Court overturned a decision by EU ministers to sign trade and fisheries agreements with Morocco which included Western Sahara, but said they would remain in place because “canceling them with immediate effect could have serious consequences. consequences for the European Union’s external action and call legal certainty into question ”.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell must now find a way out of the diplomatic solution that has divided the bloc for more than a decade. While the former North African colonial powers, France and Spain, tend to favor the claims of Morocco, which sees Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory, Sweden and Germany have shown more sympathy. for the cause of the Saharawi people.
A UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991 ended the Polisario Front’s guerrilla warfare against Morocco, but a promised independence referendum never took place.
Reacting on Twitter to the decision, Oubi Bachir, the Ambassador of the Polisario Front in Europe, who carried the case, hailed a great victory for the Saharawi people.
The court’s ruling was widely anticipated as it mirrors previous rulings. In 2016 and 2018, the court ruled that earlier versions of the trade and fisheries agreements only applied to Morocco and not to Western Sahara, which is rich in natural resources.
The EU has sought a way to circumvent these decisions by revising the trade and fisheries agreements, following consultations with self-proclaimed representatives of the Saharawi people. But the court, which declared that it recognized the Polisario Front as the representative of the people of Western Sahara, concluded that the EU authorities “cannot be considered to have obtained the consent of the people of Western Sahara”.
The actual order to rework the agreements would have the greatest impact on Spain, whose fishing fleets enjoy a lucrative trade from the waters off the coast of Western Sahara. In 2018, 94% of the EU’s catches under the fishing agreement with Morocco came from Western Sahara waters, according to the professional body Europêche.
EU officials are also worried about diplomatic fallout with Rabat as they call for more help from Morocco to curb irregular migration to Europe.
In a joint statement, Borrell and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said they would take the necessary measures “to ensure the legal framework which guarantees the continuity and stability of trade relations” between the two parties.
The American administration of Donald Trump became in December 2020 the first Western country to recognize Moroccan sovereignty in an agreement aimed at normalizing relations between Israel and Morocco.
The territory remains on the UN’s decolonization list of “Non-Self-Governing Territories”, meaning that its roughly 500,000 inhabitants still do not run their own government.