Sunday

20th Jan 2019

EU aviation agreement with Morocco in legal hot water

  • Europeans flying to or over the Western Sahara may be without any insurance should things go wrong (Photo: Valentina Pop)

European airlines flying into and out - and over - the Western Sahara may be doing so without any legal basis, putting their passengers at grave risk should anything go wrong.

"When airlines pass over the Western Sahara as they do today, they do so without any judicial security and are in a zone of zero rights," Gilles Devers, a lawyer who successfully challenged an EU aviation agreement with Morocco at the General Court of the European Union, told EUobserver.

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The issue is the latest blow against a European Commission that has negotiated deals with Morocco to exploit the resources of a territory that was annexed by Rabat following an invasion in 1975.

The Western Sahara is roughly the size of the United Kingdom and is not internationally recognised as part of Morocco.

But the EU has over the years cut fish and agriculture deals with Morocco. The deals were later invalidated by the European Court of Justice because they spanned into the disputed territory.

New ruling blow

Now judges last week delivered another strike.

They issued an order in a dispute over the EU's aviation agreement with Morocco. In their reasoning, the judges explain that the agreement cannot apply to the Western Sahara.

EASA, the European agency responsible for civil aviation safety, offered its interpretation.

"The ruling means for flying over the Western Sahara are outside the territorial scope of the Air Service Agreements at stake," an EASA spokesperson told EUobserver, in an email.

Those agreements are negotiated by the European Commission and underpin an airline's legal rights. Without those rights, things like passenger insurance may not apply.

Signed by the commission in 2006, the agreement with Morocco took another eight years before all EU states approved.

The pact aligns aviation legalisation on issues like safety, air traffic management and consumer protection, allowing European carriers to operate freely from any point in the EU to any point in Morocco.

That agreement is now on shaky grounds because some European carriers are also flying to airports in Laayoune and Dakhla, situated in the Western Sahara.

Among them is KLM-owned Transavia airlines.

For less than €100, Transavia offers direct flights from Paris Orly to Dakhla in what it describes as a city "on the south coast of Morocco."

Asked whether flights to Dakhla have any legal basis given the most recent court order, it said it had "obtained the necessary authorisations from the administrative authorities of the civil aviation in charge."

Similar questions were sent to the commission, which has yet to respond, telling this website that the complexities of the order require analysis. Instead, over the weekend it issued a separate statement on supporting UN efforts to settle the 43 year-old dispute.

Lobbying exposed

The move may impose further complications ahead of a critical vote by MEPs in the international trade committee later today in Strasbourg.

The MEPs are set to vote on an extended agricultural trade deal with Morocco on the basis that the commission had obtained the consensus of the people in the Western Sahara, known as the Saharawi.

The commission is required to obtain their consensus, given the ECJ had declared the original deal illegal. Civil society groups say the commission failed in its attempts.

They claim the commission only met pro-Moroccan organisations like the OCP Group, a multi-billion euro state-run mining and chemical corporation.

Morocco has been pressing to get the agriculture pact signed, to pave the way for more lucrative deals in future. The European Parliament needs to agree.

But intensive diplomatic pressure and lobbying by Morocco, and exposed by EUobserver, has cast a long shadow over the committee vote.

The committee's lead MEP on the file, French liberal Patricia Lalonde, was a board member of the EuroMeda foundation.

The foundation is in the spotlight because it counts former state Moroccan ministers and politicians among its ranks, operates out of the Brussels office of Hill+Knowlton consultancy, and is not listed in the EU's lobby register.

An internal European Parliament probe has since been launched against possible code of conduct breaches.

The Greens want the probe finalised before the committee vote can take place. Their demands were rejected last week. The political party has since decided to boycott Monday's vote altogether.

Greens boycott EU-Morocco vote after lobbying expose

EUobserver has exposed Moroccan lobbying at the European Parliament, prompting a probe to be launched against several MEPs. The Greens have now decided to boycott next week's Morocco trade vote in protest, saying the lobbying investigation must be finished first.

Investigation

Exposed: How Morocco lobbies EU for its Western Sahara claim

The European parliament's lead negotiator on the Morocco trade deal, French liberal MEP Patricia Lalonde, is also on the EuroMedA Foundation board along with former Moroccan state ministers and a top ranking official in Morocco's ministry of agriculture.

Lead MEP on Morocco resigns as her report passes

MEPs ultimately adopted a controversial report on an EU trade deal with Morocco - despite the sudden resignation by French liberal Patricia Lalonde as the file's rapporteur only moments beforehand. Her departure follows an EUobserver investigation into lobbying by Morocco.

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